Pysanka (in Ukrainian the word "pysanka" is derived from the verb "pysaty", that is "to write" or "to paint") is an egg painted with bright colours in geometrical patterns or stylized figural, animal and floral designs. The tradition of painting chicken - or some other birds' - eggs is so old that no one would be able to tell when it started. Christianity adopted this pagan tradition and Easter eggs have become an indelible feature of the feast commemorating the Resurrection of Christ.

In many parts of the world one finds ancient myths in which the Egg features as a symbol of the Sun, Spring and Revival of Nature. Ethnologists of the 20th century have discovered that the ancient beliefs of many peoples regarded the Egg of Light as a source from which the world had sprung, developing from Chaos to Order. In Ukraine the tradition of painting eggs goes back at least thirty three hundred years - clay eggs, once evidently painted and dating from the 13th or 12th century B.C., were unearthed by archaeologists in the vicinity of the village of Pustynka at the Dnister River.Painted eggs must have been used as charms guarding against evil. There were pysankas of many kinds to fit many occasions. For it to have magic powers, a pysanka must be painted at a specified time, in certain colours and patterns, and chants must be sung while it was being painted. It was also very important to give it as a present to the right person. Pysankas were mostly painted by elderly women, late at night, after everything had grown quiet. It was desirable to do it at the end of the day which had passed without any rows, scandals or emotional upheavals. It was a sort of a ritual in which one had to observe the rules whose origins had long been last in the mists of time. One had to be very careful in preparing the paints and "pysachok", that is a small wooden stick with a foil spiral on one end to be used for painting the egg. (Now, of course, paint brushes are used but you can't create a "real" pysanka with a brush). The eggs itself had to be either a fertilized one, taken from under a hen, or if the fertilization could not be ascertained the egg to be painted had to be sucked out. To do it one has to make two tiny holes with a needle at the opposite ends and then by eggs of its contents. The symbolism of colours, patterns and designs varied from area to area but were certain patterns and designs which were of a more universal character. if the colours, patterns, chanting and other things were of a more universal character. If the colours, patterns, chanting and other things were right, if the eggs had been properly chosen and treated before being painted, if the time of the day when the painting was done was correct, then the painted eggs were believed to be powerful charms against fire, lighting, illnesses and other mishaps
Christianity imbued the painted egg with new meanings transforming it into the Easter egg and giving it a new symbolism but it could not eradicate the elements of pagan beliefs associated with the painted egg. Easter eggs, blessed in church by a priest, were continued to be used as a sort of charms for many different occasions: to be placed under the corner stone of a house; to help making bees to give more honey; to guard against misadventure on a journey; to secure happiness in marriage; to promote multiplication in the animal, floral and human worlds, to a name but a few of its functions.
By the end of the nineteenth century the art of painting eggs began to decline throughout Ukraine and unfortunately very few of the eggs dating from the 19th or earlier times have been preserved in private collections or in museums. Now, at the end of the century and of the millennium, a certain revival of pysankas is observed. Hopefully it is part of the general revival of interest in the Ukrainian national traditions many of which go down into a very distant past.
Looking at pysankas one can derive purely aesthetic pleasure from the colours and patterns. One can marvel at the skill and ingenuity of the artists (absolute majority of whom are, of course, amateurs) who have painted them. But it's a much greater fun to know the hidden meaning of the combination of colours used, of patterns and designs. Some of the signs seem to be obvious but even the more obvious, like, say, all kinds of that go beyond their Christian significance.
Rings painted on pisankas were believed to bring concord and conciliation into family life; representations of birds were painted on the light background (pink, light green and blue) if the pysanka was meant for children and on the dark background if was to be given to grown-ups; "belts" were against unfaithfulness; floral patterns helped gain success. About a hundred patterns and designs were used and in the times of old it was strictly forbidden to change them to suit one's artistic whims. But in our times new patterns and designs have begun to creep in. It is still a controversial issue. If one cannot change the words of an established prayer, can one change the patterns crosses, have meanings and designs that have long been established by tradition as the only acceptable ones?
Some of the patterns and signs on pysankas have symbolism that has come down to us probably from the pre-historic times. Wavy patterns symbolize rain; dots - grain which is about to sprout; squares and rhombi - earth and its its fertility; the Greek cross - the Sun, and originally a god of the Earth; a zigzag with rounded angles - the snake which was a symbolical representation of a god of the Nether World; a tree - the sacred Tree of Life; a female figure - the Great Goddess; Goddess of the Sky, Protectress of all Life on Earth; a fish - health, fertility, life and death; birds - creatures that are able to fly high and thus carry messages to the gods; oak leaves - Perun, god of Thunder, of human and solar energy, of life. All the figural representations, of course, are highly stylized.
Pysankas and krashankas (eggs uniformly painted in one colour, with no patterns or designs) used to be an important element in the Ukrainian country life. A lot of their symbolic meanings have been forgotten, they are not used as universal charms as much as they used to be. But they remain joy to the eye and an exiting field for ethnographic studies. And for very many people pysankas, no doubt, have retained their special significance as an integral feature of Easter. Even those who do not care for pysankas pre-historic and Christian symbolism cannot help enjoying pysankas art.

By Oles' PANIV
Reported by Natalia POKLAD,