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Last spring, a comrade invited his friends over to make pysanky—chicken eggs decorated Ukrainian style with beeswax and potent Slavic dyes.
When I was a child, we made Easter eggs with non-toxic edible dyes. This involved holding a hard boiled egg in a coffee mug of vinegar and dye for a ridiculously long time only to discover the egg had (barely) taken on a faint pastel hue. Then you would add a decal of a bunny wearing a hair bow. The decal would frequently split. Eventually your dad would amble in and eat the thing to spare you from your feelings of embarrassment.
Even though my friend is a cool motorcycle racer, I expected his pysanky-making party to be pretty much the same sort of activity (or perhaps, at best, a drunken folk craft–like making toy soldiers out of round clothepins), but it was not at all similar. People spent the whole day creating miniature artworks which truly reflected their personalities. Some of the final pysanka were remarkably lovely and looked like the treasure you get at the end of a videogame when you beat a high level boss: emerald scepter…famed coconut of Quendor… elf helmet of truesilver…ah, at last, the magical egg of Hutsul!
Eastern European Christians have claimed the egg dying tradition is their own. According to folk legend, Mary tried to bribe Pontius Pilate with boiled eggs. When he refused this meager buyoff, she began weeping. Her tears stained the eggs and caused them to roll to Eastern Europe. This somewhat feeble tale masks a much more compelling and ancient belief. I‘m going to quote the website of New York’s foremost pysanky artist, Sofika (who apparently has one name—just like Madonna or Sting). She writes:
The Hutsuls — mountain people of Western Ukraine – believed that the fate of the world depended upon the pysanka. As long as the egg-decorating custom continued, the world would exist. If this custom was abandoned, evil – in the form of a horrible monster, forever chained to a mountain cliff – would overrun the world. Each year this monster-serpent would send out his henchmen to see how many pysanky were created. If the number was low, the serpent’s chains were loosened and he was free to wander the earth causing havoc and destruction. If, on the other hand, the number of pysanky increased, the chains were tightened and good would triumph over evil for yet another year.
Once again, the root of things is the simple fear of a giant evil serpent god!
A final note: my friend did not host his pysanky party this spring, but I am completely sure this has nothing to do with all of the earthquakes and giant snakes wreaking havoc around the world.