In many of the
world's cultures, the egg has represented the original source of creation. It was from
this egg that the universe was originally born. During the spring cycle of festivals, the
ancient pre-Christian peoples used decorated eggs to welcome the sun and to help the sun's
rebirth into power and warmth, ensuring fertility of the fields, river, herds, and
ultimately, of man. Ancient man believed that before anything else existed, there was only
a great cosmic egg. He believed that to recreate this egg and decorate it with the many
symbols of fertility, power and life, he would be able to assist the world in remaining
alive, powerful and above all, good. Ancient man believed that this original cosmic egg,
due to some unknown but definite will, began to expand throughout the primeval night,
until it burst, giving birth to all living things. Hence, the egg came to symbolize the
greatest of all mysteries that man could experience — The Mystery of Life.
The symbolism of
pysanka design blends ancient, pagan rituals with modern, Christian traditions. The pagans
celebrated the joyous spring cycle, the rebirth of nature. Christians celebrate the
resurrection of Christ, the spiritual rebirth of man.
mysteries! The symbolism of the egg itself. The symbolism of colour. The symbolism of
individual motifs, an integration of mankind's interrelationship with nature and God. What
a complex code to represent the characteristic ways of life of a unique people!
In the folk life
of Ukrainian people, the pysanka possess talismanic powers. Receipt of a pysanka is not
only a token of friendship or esteem but also brings with it protection from harm.
Ukrainian ancestors believed that pysanky in the home would bring good fortune, wealth,
health, and protection from lightning and fire.
Pysanky are said
to possess curative powers for both men and animals. Pysanky were placed in the mangers of
cows and horses to ensure safe calving and colting and a prodigious supply of milk for the
calves and colts. The beekeeper blessed each beehive with a pysanka and left one for a few
days under the first beehive. It was also a custom to set out to pasture the first cattle
with a pysanka and willow branch. Pysanky were placed in the nests of hens to encourage
acceptance of Christianity in 988 A.D., the pysanka has been part of the Christian
tradition and Easter ritual. The pysanka cames to symbolize the rebirth of man, as
represented by the Ressurection. Many of the rituals and traditions associated with the
spring festivals became incorporated into the joyous Easter celebrations of the new
religion. The egg symbol was likened to the tomb from which Christ arose. Rich
ornamentation of the egg began and eggs were kept as religious mementos.
It is difficult
to ascertain where the pagan beliefs and customs surrounding the art of the pysanka end
and where the Christian connotations begin. In actual fact, a subtle blending of both has
resulted. Many of the ancient designs and motifs were adopted by the Christians, who
indeed gave new meanings to the symbolism. Many of the pagan customs and traditions were
adapted to the Christian context, and were retained as part of the Easter celebrations of
life and renewal.
Receipt of a
pysanka is the ultimate in personalized gifts since each pysanka must have symbolic
meaning for the recipient. In Ukraine, specific motifs, designs and colors were designated
for certain people. For example, it was the custom to present children and youth with
pysanky of bright fields adorned with symbols of the sun or motifs depicting young plant
or animal life. The master and mistress were often presented with pysanky depicting the
tasks of farming and husbandry such as 'Forty Triangles' symbolizing the forty tasks of
life. The meander with its connotations of the continuous thread of life and the
sunflowers motif were other popular choices. For the elderly, it was the custom to present
a pysanka with a darker field showing the ribbon of life motif (continuous bands
encircling) or the heavenly gate motif in preparation for life after death. These designs
were also placed on the graves of ancestors. Pysanky with a white field were placed on the
graves of children, symbolizing the purity of their young lives.
In addition to
the talismanic beliefs mentioned earlier, all Ukrainians, both young and old, carried with
them a pysanka during the first two days of the Easter holiday. A custom still retained is
that of washing on Easter morning in water in which a pysanka and/or krashanka has been
rinsed. The shells of a blessed pysanka were thrown on the roof for good luck. Shells were
thrown into streams and rivers and carried off to inform the saintly spirits of the
arrival of Easter.
The art of
decorating the pysanka was and is considered a holy and ritual task. Belief in the power
of the pysanka was so strong that specific prayers were recited prior to beginning the
work. These prayers guaranteed that the recipient would be endowed with a message of
happiness, well-being, joy, good fortune and protection from harm. The pysanka is believed
to have power similar to that of a cross.
Fresh hen's eggs
were generally used, although crane, goose or duck eggs were also used prior to the 19th
Century. It was considered essential to use a live flame for the writing process as this
was considered the talismanic descendant of the life-giving sun. Another magical
ingredient of the writing process was the use of clean beeswax. This was again entwined
with the sun cult. The wax was made from honey; the honey was collected from flowers;
flowers grew because of the sun. According to ancient belief, some souls became flowers
after death, while some souls were born of flowers.
The mistress chose the quiet time
of the later evening to write her pysanky. To set the proper mood, she was to have spent a
'holy' day, without argument, accusation, or sin. Since each artist kept her artistry
secret until Easter, it was appropriate that this task was undertaken either alone or only
with immediate family members assisting. Absolute quiet was required and generally the
elders and young children were already asleep. In the still hours, each individual artist
brought to her work the special tone or atmosphere of spirituality which was imparted to
the symbolic pysanky. Following completion of the writing and dyeing processes, the
pysanka was baked in the oven. This was not only to remove the wax layers. It was also
considered a purifying process, the uniting of the pysanka with the force of the
SYMBOLISM OF THE DESIGN
— The Universe
design concept epitomizes the highest forces of nature. Characterized by a dark field, the
composition ineludes a representation of the sun, stars and other heavenly bodies. This
pysanka represents man's wonder at the mysteries of the universe and incorporates ancient
solar symbols which were the most significant in pysanka design.
Vesna — Call of Spring
This is a large
grouping of designs which symbolizes the hope of a rapid and safe return of spring. Both
dark and bright fields are seen and the predominant motifs are floral. Partial animal
representations are sometimes seen as well. These designs are entwined with the magical
call of spring and form ideograms representing songs, games and dances of the village
As messengers of
the sun and heaven and the coming of spring, birds were especially revered in Ukraine
since they were the carriers of the egg, the physical embodiment of the eternal cycle of
creation and life.
considered as expediters of the arrival of spring and were assigned talismanic powers for
driving out evil. Live birds were often immured in foundations of a home to proclaim or
ensure life and happiness of the home because of their close alliance with heaven.
Kola-Obruchky — Rounds or Bands Encircling
This design was
composed of three horizontal bands with the main motifs in each division being a tripod
with spirals or curls. The tripods were tri-coloured in yellow, red and green. This design
incorporated the magical trinity and the sun symbol tripod to symbolize the joy of life,
nature's awakening, the everlasting qualities of the universe, as well as peace, love,
understanding and goodwill.
Bohynja-Berehynja — Grand Goddess
grouping of designs relating to the principle of birth and renewal graphically illustrates
the reverence for the female principle. The matriarchal symbol Bohynja-Berehynja — Grand
Goddess appeared in the 5th and 6th Centuries A.D. This representation was widely seen in
embroidery, weaving, rug and wood carving designs. This symbol was also prevalent in the
Egyptian (Isis), Babylonian (Istar), Greek (Hera), Thracian (Semele) and Scythian (Tahiti)
Sorok-Klyntsiw — Forty Triangles
An example of
transition of a design concept to the Christian belief is the familiar and popular 'Forty
Triangles'. Reflecting the life style of the pre-Christian era, each triangle, by prayer
or magical belief, was assigned a specific meaning such as:
• Worship of
the heavens — sun, moon, stars.
• Water, earth,
• Affairs of
husbandry — ploughing, seeding, sprouting, ripening or maturation, gathering of the
• Flax, hemp,
gardens, orchards, beekeeping, breeding and care of cattle.
affairs — birth of children, growth of children, health of the master, weddings of the
young, travel, strength.
The theme of the
forty triangles was intimately related to the total life of the people, signifying the
forty tasks of life, and the magical number three. In the Christian interpretation, the
design signifies the forty day Lenten period, the forty days of Christ's fasting, the
forty martyrs or the forty birds hovering around the forty martyrs.
Vorota — Heavenly Gates
Is another design
which was adapted to the Christian belief. The original symbolism of this design is
steeped in the ancient belief regarding birth and death intertwined with the cult of the
sun. The total design concept centers on the theme of heavenly gates through which
new-born as well as departing souls travel from and return to the paradise-like regions of
the warm sun. The Christian belief regarding birth and everlasting life was easily
incorporated into this design.
Symbols of the
sun were the most ancient and most significant motifs of pysanka design. They deified the
life-giving, all-embracing, all-renewing, all birth-giving force of the sun. They
signified enchantment and praise in its worship. The sun, as a fire symbol was seen as the
embodiment of life on earth. (A similar interpretation was given the cross in
pre-Christian times). Almost every pysanka, whether ancient or contemporary in design,
incorporates one or more symbols of the sun. These include variations of the circle,
swastika, tripod and star or rose.
Kolo — Circle
The circle stems
from the Bronze Age and is the most naturalistic representation of the sun. It represents
completeness, continuity and the cyclical nature of the universe. The pre-Christian
interpretation denoted the sun as the centre of the universe, the giver of fertility, the
victor over evil and darkness. The circle containing a dot is said to represent the moment
when the earth receives the light of the sun and comes to life in the spring. In the
Christian tradition, the circle may be associated with God because of its perfection and
its ability to unite.
Lomanyj Khrest — Swastika
A very common
motif, the swastika is a symbol of happiness, blessings, good fortune and good will. These
interpretations are common to the ancient sun symbols.
The swastika is
often seen with rounded corners or in the form of the windmill or maltese cross. The hooks
are sometimes stylized to form leaves.
Trynih — Tripod
A three part
swastika, this solar symbol is known from Trypilljan times. Signifying a trinity such as
birth, life and death, or man, woman and child, it reflects the significance of the
magical number three.
Zirka or Pozha — Star or Rose
It is one of the
most beautiful and versatile of the geometric representations and is said to signify
purity, life, the giver of light, the centre of all knowledge as well as beauty, elegance
and perfection. It also denotes the eye or divine will of God. In the Christian context,
the star or rose becomes the herald of Christ's birth, a symbol of God's love toward man.
To this day,
these primary solar symbols remain as the basic symbolic forms in the art of the pysanka.
With the acceptance of Christianity, the cross replaced the sun symbols as the
representation of rebirth or eternal life. The sun and cosmic symbols today signify
happiness, prosperity and good fortune.
Kapanky — Dots
Dots of all sizes
represent the stars in the heavens, tears or fixed points that have no beginning or end.
They may represent a cuckoo's egg, which is a symbol, of spring and carries with it the
magical powers of predicting the future. A dot with a circle enclosing it represents the
axis of the universe, eternity seen within an egg.
Trykutnyk — Triangle
The triangle is a
very basic ideogram and, like the tripod, always signifies a trinity. In pagan times, the
trinity represented was the elemental air, fire and water or the heavens, earth and air.
symbolism, the Holy Trinity is most often represented.
Prjama — Straight Line
The straight line
encircling the egg symbolizes eternity or the continuous thread of life.
Doroha-Smuha — Ribbon — Belt
This motif also
symbolizes eternity and is almost always seen in unbroken form so that the thread of life
will not be broken.
Miandyr — Embattled Line
signifies a forest or enclosure, something to be contained.
Zubchasta — Engrailed and Invected Line
This suggests a
place of meeting or union of opposites such as land meeting water.
Lomana — Indented Line — Saw
This is a common
line variation indicating fire as the symbol of the sun or life-giving heat. It may also
represent water or waves with its growth and cleansing properties.
Bezkonechnyk — Meander
This ancient form
of the line is popular in all regions of Ukraine. In the isolated mountainous regions, it
is small and delicate. In the central and eastern regions, it is more expansive reflecting
the influences of open spaces and water. This motif emphasizes harmony and motion
depicting infinity, waves and immortality.
Resheto — Sieve
A very common
motif on the beautiful Hutsul pysanky. the sieve is a symbol for dividing good from evil.
Koshyk — Basket
suggests contained knowledge, motherhood as well as the giver of life and gifts.
Drabynka — Ladder
A motif taken
from everyday agricultural life, the ladder is symbolic of searching; rising above the
petty problems of life.
Hrebin' — Comb
This motif is
sometimes classified as a sun symbol because of its teeth or rays. It may also suggest the
putting of things in order. Three teeth or rays may symbolize the Holy Trinity in the
Christian tradition or the three major stages of life; birth, adulthood and death.
Hrabli — Rakes
meaning to the comb, rakes have the additional reference to the harvest.
Kucheri — Bends
defence or protection.
Spyrali — Spirals
The mystery of
life and death is portrayed by spirals since they denote divinity or immortality.
Khrest — Cross
Even in ancient
times amongst the Ukrainians, the cross was revered as a symbol of life. The basic
two-line cross and the cross pine or stojachyj khrest were used as motifs in pre-Christian
times. With the adoption of Christianity by the Ukrainians, in 988 A.D., the cross was
incorporated into the design of the pysanka as a symbol of the Crucifixion of Christ and
His suffering and death for the sins of the world. There are many variations of the cross
in pysanka design. They are always symbolic of the Christian faith.
Khrest — Two Line Cross
The simplest form
of the star, this cross can be said to represent four cardinal points of reality, or the
four ages of the world; child, youth, man and elder. It also brings to mind the hub of the
universe and the-life-giving energy of the sun. The addition of spirals to the two-line
cross enhances the concept of the star, sun or fire. The maltese cross is another
variation of this motif.
Stojachyj Khrest — Standing Cross
This motif was
found even before Christian times in some areas, as a symbol of clan worship, and later
incorporated into the Christian context.
Andryjivs'kyj Khrest — St. Andrew's Cross
Andrew was the patron saint who preached Christianity in Ukraine, his X-shaped cross
became a popular pysanka motif.
Pravoslavnyj Khrest — Orthodox Cross
This form of the
cross also became prominent since the Christian rite adopted by the Ukrainians was that of
Byzantine Orthodoxy. The Orthodox faith was accepted by Prince Volodymyr the Great who was
married to Anna, the sister of the Byzantine Emperor. Volodymyr, a wise and understanding
leader, Christianized the realm and established a precedent for subsequent rulers. He
established highly-organized social services and a mitigated, fair version of the
Byzantine legal code. The Orthodox cross, with its diagonal lower bar, is distinctive. It
is said to truly represent the cross of the Crucifixion. Historians state that, beginning
in the ninth Century, crucifixes began to appear with the lower bar or footboard in a
horizontal position. This was said to provide a resting place for the feet of Christ.
Although the first Byzantine crosses had a horizontal footboard, Orthodox crosses during
the tenth and eleventh Centuries showed the lower bar in the diagonal position.
There are several
interpretations regarding the symbolism of the Orthodox cross. One of these states that
the raised side of the footboard points upward to indicate the lightened burden for
believers. The lowered side represents the heavier burden of disbelievers. It is also
believed that the raised side denotes the probable uplifting of believers to Christ in his
second coming. The extra horizontal bar at the top of the cross represents the inscription
board which was nailed above Christ on the cross. It held the inscription: "This is
Jesus, The King of the Jews", which was written in Greek, Latin and Hebrew.
which plant motifs predominate fall under the category of Vesna or spring, symbolizing the
rebirth of nature and life. These designs reflect the unrestrained longing expressed by
the dormant plants. These pysanky are talismanic not only for the growth of plants but for
the general well-being of humans as well. It was a custom to place pysanky and krashanky
in the gardens and orchards to ensure prodigious growth. Plant motifs are most often
stylized. They may predominate in a design or they may be used to supplement and create a
harmonious whole with geometric forms.
Jalychka or Sosonka — Pine Tree
This motif was
known in the Trypilljan culture and is common to most parts of Ukraine. Its qualities of
permanent greenery and endurance symbolize strength, boldness, growth and eternal life.
Derevo — Broad Leafed or Deciduous Tree
Known as the tree
of life, this design is a symbol of renewal, creation and organic unity. It is usually
surrounded by stags or birds, often both. Common to many cultures, this representation is
seen throughout the world.
Jablunja — Apple Tree
This is a
beautiful example of stylized plant representation. Very contemporary in design, it is,
nevertheless, a pre-Christian ideogram. Other orchard trees such as the pear or plum are
occasionally seen as well.
Verbs — Willow
In the Ukrainian
religion, the Willow branch is traditionally blessed on Palm Sunday. After the Divine
Liturgy, people greet each other with light swats of the willow saying: "The willow
beats, not I, Easter comes in a week; be healthy as the waters, beautiful as the dew and
wealthy as the earth". Spring dances are often performed around the boughs of the
willow as well. There was an ancient belief that the sun was held in the sky on a large
Vynohrad — Grape Vine
symbolizes continuity, good fellowship and strong, loyal love. Representing the wine of
the Holy Communion, it also denotes the love of God and of Christ for mankind.
Jabluchky — Apples or Slyvy —
motifs denote knowledge, health and wisdom.
Trylysnyk — Three Leaf
symbol denotes immortality and eternal love. The plant most often stylized is the barvinok
or periwinkle which forms an integral part of spring and wedding rituals. The traditional
wedding wreath is fashioned from the periwinkle plant, the sacred plant of Venus the
goddess of love. Like the evergreen, it retains its green colour year round. From the
Christian viewpoint, it symbolizes pure love and the eternity of the Holy Trinity.
Dubovyj Lystok — Oak Leaf
Many regions of
Ukraine display a version of this ideogram. Highly stylized, it signifies strength and
persistence. As the leaves of the oak tree die in the fall only to be replaced in the
spring, so are humans caught up in this cycle of life and death.
Rozha — Rose or Zirka — Star
interchangeably with the star motif, the rose is a predominant floral motif and occurs in
many varied forms. Some variations are highly stylized and abstracted. This ideogram is
symbolic of the female principle, wisdom, beauty and elegance.
Konvalija — Lily of the Valley
An early spring
flower, the lily of the valley suggests purity and humility as typified in the young
Sonjashnyk — Sunflower
An ancient floral
symbol denoting the sun, this symbol signifies the love of God because of its intense love
of light. It is allied with the concept of motherhood and, therefore, becomes a life
Vazon — Vase
This is a
striking floral design predominantly from the region of Sokal'. This region also displays
characteristic floral representations showing the whole flower.
Ohirok — Cucumber
Known since the
pre-Christian era, the cucumber is a symbol of the preservation of life because of its
ability to retain water.
Kolossja — Ears of Cereal
representation of grain motifs predict a generous harvest. There are also spring games and
dances depicting this ideogram.
Pshenytsja — Wheat
representation is less commonly used than other plant motifs. Its ritual significance is
more common in the oral tradition of the Ukrainians. However, its importance is striking
since it represents man's position in the cycle of life. In pre-Christian belief, the
wheat held the soul of the clan. It was as revered as the earth. The Christian adaptation
denotes the mead of the Holy Communion with its symbolism of God's love for man.
Kucheri — Curls
This floral motif
showing sprials or curls represents continuity.
Motifs based on
zoomorphic representation are not as commonly used as are other categories. Generally
speaking, designs from the Carpathian mountain region of western Ukraine use these motifs
along with geometric forms. Their use reflects the close association of the mountainous
peoples with their natural surroundings. Many of these motifs were in use during
Whole Representations Olen' — Stag
ideogram dating back to the Trypilljan culture, the stag signifies leadership, victory,
joy and masculinity.
Konyk — Horse
The horse appears
as the ancient sign of the sun. Archaeologists claim that the horse was first domesticated
in Ukraine. A horse cult was popular along with the ancient cult of the sun. The konyk
motif faces away from the sun as it was believed that the konyk pulled the sun on its
daily journey. Not only does this motif symbolize wealth or prosperity, endurance and
speed: it also emphasizes the motion of the sun.
Baran — Ram
Chiefly a male
symbol, it represents leadership and strength in the face of opposition. The popular motif
of numerous variations also suggests perserverance and dignity.
Pivnyk — Rooster
This motif is
considered a talisman of coming good fortune. In ancient times, it was related to the
coming of the sun. It also denotes exultation and vigilance. As a symbol of masculinity,
it predicts a rich married life with the blessing of many children.
Kurochka — Hen
fertility, the revered hen is the bearer of the talismanic egg.
Ptahky — Birds
species of birds were considered to be harbingers of spring. The swallow foretold the
coming of spring to the hospodar or householder; the stork symbolized the coming of new
babies; the lark brought spring into the fields; the nightingale announced it to the
orchards; while ducks and geese were precursors of spring to the lakes and rivers.
sparrow denotes community life or human attachment. Since the sparrow never flies south
for the winter, it represents the soul of man striving to be at one with God under any
Metelyk — Butterfly
pleasure and frivolity of childhood, the butterfly motif suggests the ascent of the soul
into immortality. It also reminds us that things of delicate beauty must take their own
course rather than be contained.
Pavuk — Spider
This ideogram was
first seen as a variation of the sun motif with projecting strokes or rays. It symbolizes
patience, artistry and industry.
Ryba — Fish
The fish, a
symbol of Christianity, suggests abundance, baptism, regenerative powers and sacrifice.
Kurjachi Lapky — Hen's Feet
This is a
delightful motif which stresses protection of the earth toward her young. They also denote
guidance or direction of the young in their search for knowledge.
Husjachi Lapky — Goose Feet
the soul or spirit as well as giving an intimation of warning or wakefulness.
Rohy — Horns
suggests nobility, wisdom and triumph over problems. There is also an implication of
manhood and leadership.
Rizhky — Ram Horns
or further strength in the face of opposition as well as perseverance and dignity are
suggested by this motif.
Vedmezhi Lapy — Bear's Paws
The bear was
associated with the 'Lisovyk' or forest guardian spirit and this motif speaks of bravery,
wisdom, strength and endurance as well as the coming of the spring. It also suggests a
protective concept and is associated with the master of a home, the hospodar.
Zajachi Vushka — Rabbit's Ears
denotes the humility of man as he attentively listens to the lessons offered by nature.
Vovchi Zuby — Wolves' Teeth
denote loyalty, wisdom and a firm grip. So strong was the talismanic belief in their power
that wolves' teeth were given as amulets to both children and adults to help teething and
to prevent toothaches.
Tserkvy — Churches
The church also
appears at the time of the acceptance of Christianity. The basic outline depicts stylized
versions of the beautiful wooden churches of the Carpathian mountains, with their
characteristic triangular roofs. This motif appears only in western Ukraine. The sieve
motif within the outline represents the Church's ability to separate good from evil. The
motifs used are symbolic in nature; a combination of crosses, triangles and quadrangles.
More rarely seen are the partial representations such as windows and belfries.
SYMBOLISM OF COLOUR
The colours used
in pysanka design are steeped in symbolism. Each region of Ukraine uses characteristic
colour combinations in its designs. The most ancient pysanky were composed of only one or
two colours. The most magical ancient pysanky were considered to be those having four or
five colours, each carrying a message of good will for the recipient such as happy family
life, peace, love, good health, or success. Briefly, the meanings associated with color in
pysanka design are as follows:
||This is the symbol
of light and purity. It speaks of youth, happiness, the harvest, hospitality, love and
benevolence. It is the colour consecrated to the light deities and is the Christian symbol
of recognition and reward.
of endurance, strength and worthy ambition, orange is the colour of fire and flame. It
represents the red of passion tempered by the yellow of wisdom. It is the symbol of the
golden, everlasting sun.
||As seen in the
spring renewals, green symbolizes the breaking of shackles, freedom from bondage. It is
the colour of fertility, freshness, health and hopefulness. In the Christian context, it
represents bountifutness, hope and the victory of life over death. It is the colour of
Christmas, Easter and Epiphany.
||The magical colour
of folklore, red is considered a positive colour signifying action, fire, charity,
spiritual awakening. It also glorifies the sun and the joy of life and love. Consequently,
pysanky with red fields or motifs are typically designated for children or youth. In the
Christian symbolism, it denotes the divine love and passion of Christ.
||Said to represent
the absolute, constancy, eternity or the womb, black may also denote death, fear and
ignorance. Black and white pysanky are said to signify respect for the souls of the
departed. Black in opposition to red is said to signify ignorance arising from passions,
while in opposition to white it is believed, by some, to denote ignorance of mind.
|Brown is symbolic of
the mother earth, bringing forth her bountiful gifts.
||Blue is used
sparingly. It signifies the blue skies or the life-giving air and is a talisman of good
innocence, and birth, are symbolized with this colour.
||When used in pysanka
ornamentation, purple speaks of fasting, faith, patience and trust.
© 2001, Pysanka. all rights reserved.