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Pysanky — magic Easter eggs
One of the many legends about the origin of the pysanka* tradition goes like this: When Christ was nailed to the cross, His blood ran down the Tree and onto the pebbles at the foot of the cross. Each pebble then turned red and looked like krashanky**. The Virgin Mary who stood nearby, wept copiously, and her tears dropping onto the pebbles turned them into pysanky. Christ’s disciples picked them up and advised others to paint eggs in memory of Christ Crucified and Resurrected.
* Pysanka (plural pysanky) — a painted Easter egg, with symbols and/or geometric patterns on it;
** krashanka (plural krashanky) — an Easter egg painted uniformly in one colour.
There are Ukrainian artists who uphold this pysanka age-old tradition in modern Ukraine. Many of the old and recent pysanky are to be found in museums and in private collections, both in Ukraine and abroad.
Zoya Stashuk, one of the celebrated pysanka artists, was interviewed for WU by Olesya Sandyha.
I understand the tradition of painting eggs goes back hundreds upon hundreds of years, and is pre-Christian in origin. How does one get involved in maintaining a millennia-old tradition in the twenty-first century Ukraine?
I cannot say how others come to it, so I’ll tell you my story. On the one hand, it seems it was purely accidental that I got involved in painting pysanky, on the other, there was something providential in it… As long as I remember myself I wanted to learn to draw and paint but I never had any formal art education.
I think that inclinations for art have been running in my family for several generations. My grandmother who hailed from the land of Poltavshchyna, wove amazingly handsome rugs, and students from art schools used to come to her place to have a look at her works and learn things from her. I was always hanging around, watching her work, helping her in some simple ways — bringing something at her request, for example, I was exposed to all those colours and ornaments and designs, I imbibed art, as it were in my childhood even without quite understanding what it was. When I grew up, these childhood impressions faded — work, everyday chores, children, but something must have remained in my soul… Once, I saw an ad that said that at the local Art Centre for Children, making pysanky was taught among other things. It took me some time to come to a decision whether I should take my children there. I thought they could be too small yet for it, but in the end we went. We were the first to come. The teacher was Oksana Bilous. When she showed me her pysanky I immediately felt a warm wave roll through my soul, I recalled my grandma’s rugs and their colours, and I said I wished I’d also be taught the art of pysanka…
And you joined your children in learning it?
No, not at that time. But very soon I felt I just could not live without pysanky any longer, and one day I came home from work and declared I was quitting, giving up my job I’d been doing for eleven years. I said I was going to devote myself entirely to pysankarstvo (art of painting pysanky). I was an electrical engineer, specializing in automatics, so it was quite a veer in my career. I can’t say my family was in raptures over this shockingly unexpected decision — I had a steady job with quite a decent salary, but my husband, after the initial shock had worn off, accepted my choice without further ado. And I have never been sorry for taking up pysankarstvo… We struck up a friendship with Oksana Bilous and worked together…
I know there are Easter eggs that are called krashanky, pysanky, dryapanky and some others. What’s the difference, if any, between them?
Krashanky are painted in one colour, mostly red. Dryapanky are eggs whose shells are painted in a dark colour and then the designs are scratched onto them with a sharp instrument. Krapanky are eggs on which the design or picture is created with tiny multicoloured dots. And pysanky are the most elaborate of all, with all kinds of ornaments, designs and even narrative pictures painted on them. And, of course, the technique of painting differs from easel painting or any other painting for that matter.
Pysanky and krashanky were painted before Velykden (Easter) and on Easter Sunday they were taken to church to be blessed by the priest. Krashanky were then actually eaten during the Easter meal which marked the end of Lent, but pysanky were kept intact. They say that in the land of Hutsulshchyna, pysanky were also eaten as part of the Easter meal but I can hardly imagine how one can dare break the shell of an egg that has been made to look so beautiful. Besides, what about its protective function? But if it’s true then probably the Hutsuls do it to get that great energy that is concentrated in them.
Were pysanky kept at home?
No, not necessarily. Or rather, it was — and is — considered improper to go to somebody else’s place without having pysanky with you to give to the hosts and other guests during the Easter holiday. Exchange of pysanky is believed to help establish fast friendships. Krashanky were given to children as gifts, and it was a double lure — they could be played with and they could be eaten. Eggs were not part of a regular diet until rather recent times. Girls gave krashanky to young men they fancied and the young men gave sweets to the girls in exchange. Easter eggs had to be very well boiled and carefully painted — to give someone a badly-boiled and carelessly painted Easter egg was a great offence. Pysanky played a role in courting — what could not be said aloud was coded into the design on the eggs.
Were there any other rituals pysanky were used in?
Yes, funeral rituals, for example, or to be more precise in rituals commemorating the dead. A weak after Easter, people customarily went to the cemeteries to place food and pysanky at the graves of the deceased relatives. If somebody died on Easter, a krashanka was put into the hand of the deceased — it made it possible for the dead person to pokhrystosuvatysya (to greet and exchange a triple kiss) with all the other dead. If a child died, a krashanka was put into the coffin for the child to play with it in the other world; it would also protect the child against any evil there. Rusalky (drowned women who were believed to have turned into water sprites) were greeted by pysanky too — the eggs were rolled to and for along the waterfront and then thrown into the water.
You said that pysanky were — and are — believed to possess some protective powers.
Yes, very much so! Young women would wash their faces with water from the basin in which a pysanka was kept for some time. They believed it helped make their faces round and the skin smooth. The shells of pysanky that got accidentally broken, and pysanky with the symbols of the sun, earth, rain and fertility were buried in the garden or in a grain field. It was believed that it would protect the garden or field from damage by too much rain or by too hot sun, and at the same time it would induce fertility.
Pysanky with symbols of protection of domestic animals were put in stables and cowsheds to make the animals healthy and fertile. It protected the animals from the witches who would not dare come at night and milk the cows or ride the horses down while the owners slept. In the spring, when the cows were driven for the first time to the pasture, the cowherd was given a krashanka for protection, and the shells of the pysanky with appropriate symbols painted in them were affixed to the horns of cows — it made their milk particularly delicious and wholesome.
The shells of pysanky were put under icons, under the thresholds and other places, but were never thrown out. In the land of Volyn pysanky were kept at home as protection against thunderbolts or fire. And the best pysanky were displayed conspicuously, mostly close to the icons, and they gave the house an extra protection against evil.
You mentioned that pysanky have special energy in them. Where does it come from? From the person who paints them? Or through that person?
I cannot tell you because I really don’t know, but what I do know is that you should not sit down to work on pysanka unless you are in a serene state of mind, unless you are highly concentrated on what you are about to do, and unless there’s harmony in your soul. If you are not in such a state then you will fail in painting the egg well, and the eggs often break… It happens sometimes that the shell gets broken when you’ve just diminished working on this egg. In that case, they say you should grind the shell into tiny pieces and scatter them over the flowing water. If you don’t do it, a witch may use a part of the broken shell as a vessel for getting into the world of the dead to torture their souls there. Or such a broken shell can be used by a witch to do evil things in this world — pysanky have a great power, you know. It is popularly believed that if you scoop up some water with the broken shell and throw this water on someone, pronouncing evil spells at the same time, the effect of these spells will increase hundredfold.
When I’m working on a pysanka I’m doing my best to be as careful as I possibly can. I follow the existing patterns very carefully, not changing any symbols and not putting them where they do not belong. To change anything would be as bad as to change words in a prayer. Pysankarstvo is much more than art, there’s a lot of magic in it, and when you deal with so much energy, you do have to be very careful.
But can anyone who feels she or he wants to do it and know how to do it, paint pysanky?
Probably yes, but traditionally pysankarstvo was almost exclusively a women’s realm. It is believed that it takes only women’s hands and women’s patience to do the job properly. Besides, women in this country have been regarded as protectresses, guardians of social and family traditions. Incidentally, in some traditional stories about the origin of pysankarstvo it is the Virgin Mary Herself who was responsible for starting the practice of painting Easter eggs — she gave pysanky to Baby Jesus to play with, and in other tales it is Mary of Magdalene who was the first to start giving painted Easter eggs symbolizing the Resurrection as presents to the faithful.
In many regions of Ukraine, neither the age, nor the social or marital status of the women engaged in pysankarstvo played any role but in some Ukrainian lands these factors did play a role. In Chernihiv Oblast, for example, it was mostly aged women who painted pysanky; in the land of Kyivshchyna pysankarstvo was practised by married women or their eldest daughters, and in the land of Podillya pysankarstvo was entrusted to single girls.
Do you really believe that pysanky have that special energy and power that are popularly ascribed to them?
Yes, I do, and not at all for some superstitious reasons. I did feel the presence of that energy and power in my life. I’m absolutely convinced that pysanky possess that great protective power. It is pysanky that protect me from bad people, people with evil thoughts, or ill-wishers. Pysanky give me so much energy that I can use it for so many things. I sleep only four of five hours a day, and I feel rested. For long six years I had to take care of my father who was paralyzed, and as you understand it takes so much psychic and physical energy to look after a paralyzed person. And it also takes a lot of time, but I had enough energy for everything — for my pysanky work, for my children, for organizing exhibitions, for everything! I don’t think I would have coped had it not been for pysanky. No matter what the skeptics may say, I believe there’s something very special in pysanky. The pysanka tradition has been living for centuries and it would have been preserved for so long, if there had not been something special about pysanky. If pysanky were just decorations, playthings, they would have long given way to something else. But they live on. Those symbols on them have a great power — krutorohy (“curving horns”) give strength and inspiration; dorizhky (“trails”) are steps to self-perfection; bezkinechnyky (symbols for infinity) unite the future and the past…
Most of the time I work on my pysanky at home, and I feel so secure and serene among pysanky, so protected! I feel the presence of a benevolent force. You just can’t imagine how good it feels to be among pysanky! The world outside, filled with so much fuss, worries and problems, seems so remote, and I feel so peaceful, so shielded against all those stresses, so sheltered, so peaceful! It feels like being in a paradise. And mind you, it’s a hard job, painting pysanky. You have to strain your eyes all the time, you have to be bending all the time, you sit in an uncomfortable position, your back hurts — but it’s all nothing compared to what pysanky give you!
Do you have your own style in painting pysanky? Does the style depend on a person who paints pysanky?
I follow the traditional patterns very closely but there are so many patterns and designs you can choose from that it makes your pysanky different from anybody else’s. Everyone should look for something that would suit them best, both in making pysanky and in choosing them. It sometimes happens that I create a pysanka but fail to be satisfied with it, but someone else who looks at it, may suddenly say, Oh, I like that one best!
I tell my pupils that they also should seek new designs, patterns and ornaments that they should make them “theirs.” Pysanky are all different, and they vary not only from region to region, but from one pysanka artist to any other pysanka artist. I like pysanky from Podillya particularly much. They retain some very archaic, ancient elements — against dark backgrounds you see yellow or red dots, white lines… When there are too many decorative elements on a pysanka, the general pattern is hard to make out. Too many symbols diminish their force. It’s like people in a crowd — no chance to show your individuality among so many others, pushing, arguing. One symbol may be much more effective.
Do you use any themes from ornaments and patterns on artifacts discovered in archeological excavations?
Yes, I do. Six-thousand-year old Trypillya Culture fascinates me. In fact, using Trypillya symbols and patterns earned me an honorary title of Merited Folk Art Master of Ukraine. My deep interest in Trypillya Culture began when one of my pupils whose parents are archeologists, brought photographs of Trypillya ceramics and drawings made from some of the artefacts. Some of the symbols were so clear and understandable — water, fire, male and female principles. I used the Trypillya ornamental patterns and colour schemes for my pysanky without adding anything new, just slightly modifying them to make them look more up to date. Most of the people who saw my pysanky collection inspired by Trypillya praised it though some criticized it. But you can’t please everybody, can you? I show the Trypillya ornaments to my pupils to get them inspired and they do use the Trypillya motifs in their own work.
In the Soviet times, pysankarstvo for all practical purposes died. The Soviet authorities frowned upon people even dying eggs, much less painting them for Easter. Religion was ’to be exterminated” and all those “superstitions” with it. And the Soviets almost managed to do that. The age-old tradition was broken, young people were educated as atheists, they knew very little or nothing about ancient traditions, pysanky included, the cultural continuity was broken, the past was cut off from the present. Only in some remote villages in the rural areas of Ukraine the pysanky tradition was preserved by old people… Now a revival of many traditions has begun, and we are very happy to have been instrumental in helping pysanky get the public attention.
Zoya Stashuk’s pupils sit around a large table, a candle burning by the side of each one. They patiently decorate eggs with ornaments and symbols, keeping the ancient tradition alive, connecting the past with the future. Every pysanka is a little marvel that brings beauty and good energy into this world. One of the ancient pysanka legends has it that love will live in the world as long as pysanky are made.
There are several techniques, one of which uses wax. A design is drawn with a pencil on a fresh egg whose white shell has no scratches or dark spots; the lines that should remain white, are covered with melted wax with pysachok, a wooden tool for applying wax. The egg then is put into the dye for several minutes; when dyes of several colours are used, then the first solution should be of the lightest colour — for example yellow. The egg is pulled out of the colouring solution and is carefully wiped by a piece of cloth. The lines that should remain yellow are covered with wax and the egg is put again into the colouring solution, this time green. It is repeated several times, each next solution being darker than the previous one. The last dye is black — it gives the dark background. Four main colours are used traditionally — yellow, green red and black, but blue, purple, brown and orange are also used. In ancient times, the dyes were made from herbs and bark, but the present-day colour schemes are much brighter thanks to the use of aniline dyes.
Egg as a universal symbol
In mythology of many peoples, the egg is a symbol of creation, of the living matter born out of the dead matter, of triumph of life over death. In some of the myths the world comes out of the egg, with the yolk producing the earth and the white producing the water, and the shell creating the firmament.
In Ukrainian mythology, both the rooster and the chick were regarded as special — the chick because it lays eggs, and the cock because it calls at dawn for the sun to come out and chase away with its light all the evil forces.
The bee was another revered creature; it was believed the bees got wax from the sun itself, and their incessant and untiring activity was an example for man to follow.
The fire was sacred for many reasons, and as far as pysanky go, the fire was the element that melted the wax.
The water was also sacred, and in relation to pysanky it was the element that was used for making colouring solutions. The fire and the water protected humans against evil and cleansed the body and the soul.
In some remote villages, the belief that one must never spit into the fire, or swear when it is burning, lives on; before you take a drink of water you should take your hat off and make the sign of the cross over your chest.
Every colour on the pysanka has its own symbolism — the black is the symbol of fertile earth; the white is the symbol of honouring the souls of the dead; the red symbolizes joy, love and hope; the yellow symbolizes abundance and good harvest; the light blue is the symbol of health, to mention just a few of the symbolisms and basic colours.
Photos by Oleksiy Onishchuk