Ukrainian Easter Eggs Symbolize more than Gifts for Tourists

Ukrainian Easter eggs, or psanky, to Ukrainians are an established part of worldwide popular culture. The intricacy of designs revealed with microscopic precision by dying and waxing the egg before pealing away the wax are now manufactured without all the patience necessary to create these mini pieces of art.

The commonness of the Ukrainian Easter egg may be clear, but do you know the symbolism behind this ancient tradition that predated Christianity? The symbolism of the egg itself as well as the design and color are tied up in both Pagan and religious belief.

The egg, the symbol of birth and the origin of life, held the power to create new life, making it mysterious to ancient believers. Eggs were associated with the sun god because the yolk reminded them of the ball of fire in the sky. Eggs, or the laying of these oval beings, were also associated with sunrise as believers thought it was the rooster who had the power to summon the sun each day. The egg was believed to possess magical powers to ward off evil spirits and guarantee good harvests.

Decoration of psyanky eggs incorporate Pagan beliefs. Rays in a closed circle and an eight sided star symbolize the sun, and are said to protect a person from illness and harm. One legend tells the story of a monster chained to the rock in a cave. If psanky eggs are painted with peace and respect, the chains tighten and the monster cannot roam the earth wreaking havoc.

Pagan women who painted eggs drew their inspiration from nature, depicting flowers, trees, fruits, and plants symbolizing rebirth of spring. A plant standing on its own symbolized the tree of life. The cherry, a symbol of feminine beauty, brings happiness and love.

Easter eggs created by the mountain people of the Hutsul region of Ukraine often show a fir tree branch, a symbol of youth and eternal life. Grapes represent brotherhood, goodwill, and long-lived and faithful love. An Easter egg with an apple or plum motif is thought to bring knowledge and health. Among the flowers depicted on Easter eggs are roses, sunflowers, tulips, carnations, periwinkle, and lily-of-the-valley.

Animal motifs are not as popular but important, particularly to people in the Carpathian Mountains. The animal painted on the egg endows its best characteristics to the person. Horses are popular as they symbolize strength and endurance. Spiders symbolize perseverance, patience, and artistic talent. The butterfly is a symbol of a carefree childhood, as well as the journey of the soul into eternal happiness.

By far the most popular decorations are the geometric figures, probably because of its connections to Christianity. The “forty triangles” symbol came to represent the forty days Christ spent in the desert. The ladder symbolizes man’s search for happiness while the sieve represents the separation between good and evil. A double line showing a path has no beginning and no end, the journey of life.

Like with many aspects of Pagan belief, the advent of Christianity co-opted many of the original symbols like the “forty triangles” into religious iconic images. Origins of Easter eggs took on a religious meaning and stories were associated with Christ dying on the cross. As the blood flowed from his many wounds and fell, an Easter egg was created from each droplet. The tears of Christ’s mother, Mary, kneeling beneath the cross, flowed and as each one landed on an egg, the egg displayed elaborate decoration.

Gathering up the eggs in a scarf, Mary went to Pontius Pilate to beg for permission to bury her son giving an egg away to each child she met en route, asking each one to live in peace. Arriving at her destination, Mary fainted and the eggs rolled all over the world inspiring people to decorate eggs at Easter and give them to each other as an expression of peace. Dots once depicted stars of bird eggs, symbolizing spring, but now are the tears of Mary. The fish, once a sign of health, came to be an incarnation of Christ, the fisherman. The cross for pagans represented the four sides of the earth, but now represents the Holy Trinity.

Whether your belief is in the powers of the earth or the powers of the Almighty, spiritual sustenance may be found in one of the oldest art forms in the world – the Ukrainian Easter egg.