Discovering Pysanka: Nine Things to Know about Ukrainian Easter Eggs

The gorgeous pysanka (plural: pysanky) is a potent symbol of Easter time in Ukraine, but this artistically decorated egg appeared long before the birth of Christ.

Pysanky Artist - Natalia Shevchuk, Ternopil, Ukraine. Photo by Maryana Pytuliak, Ternopil, Ukraine.

Pysanky Artist – Natalia Shevchuk, Ternopil, Ukraine.
Photo by Maryana Pytuliak, Ternopil, Ukraine.

Pysanky, along with krashanky (singular: ‘krashanka’) are the traditional Easter eggs of Ukraine. Pysanky are exquisitely decorated using a wax-resist method (batik). The designs are made with a stylus and beeswax. Krashanky are usually one-coloured, dyed, hard-boiled eggs that are edible (for more information on krashanky see page 285, Taste of Ukraine and and “The Magical Dyed Egg – Krashanka” in Traditional Velykden: Ukrainian Easter Recipes.

The tradition of celebrating spring with pysanky was successfully incorporated into religious holiday celebrations, as were other pre-Christian Ukrainian customs. For Christians the handcrafted eggs came to represent the rebirth of Christ.

Book cover, “Traditional Velykden: Ukrainian Easter Recipes”

Book cover, “Traditional Velykden: Ukrainian Easter Recipes”

The making of psyanky still holds an honoured place in the Easter celebrations of modern Ukrainian families. Despite the rather tacky commercial introduction of ornamental stickers to adhere to eggs – so that from a distance (of about 30 metres) they look slightly like pysanky – Ukrainians have mostly resisted this offer to ‘make life easier’.  The tradition of lovingly hand-painting eggs for Easter thrives.

Nine things to know about pysanky

  1. Pysanky are made mostly as gifts. When received as gifts they are treasured with care and love, as symbolically they represent the gift of life and eternity.
  2. Pysanky possess magical powers. They provide protection from evil and bring prosperity, happiness and good health.
  3. There are about 100 traditional symbols used in pysanky ornamentation that are still known. Some of the symbols, like the ‘tryhvir’, have been known since the Trypillian culture of Ukraine (4800–3000 BC).

    Book cover, “Taste of Ukraine: Rustic Cuisine from the Heart of Ukraine”

    Book cover, “Taste of Ukraine: Rustic Cuisine from the Heart of Ukraine”

  4. Each colour within the pysanky’s design also has its own meaning and magical properties.
  5. Pysanky decorations and colours vary from region to region and from village to village.
  6. Some pysanky designs are influenced by the symbolism of numbers. One traditional symbol is called ‘forty triangles’ (for more information on the number forty in Ukrainian culture see article Baking Forty Lark Birds). Each triangle or dot represents an aspect of human activity, or natural phenomena, such as: ploughing, gardening, the sun, moon, stars, earth, water, fire and so on.
  7. There is a museum dedicated to Pysanka in Kolomyia town in western Ukraine. Uniquely, the museum’s main building is designed in the form of a pysanka that is 14 metres tall and 10 metres in diameter.
  8. The largest pysanka in the world is the Vegreville egg, a huge sculpture located in the town of Vegreville in Alberta, Canada. It weighs about 2.5 tons and is nine metres long.
  9. Several spring festivals dedicated to the pysanka take place in Ukraine, such as those in Kolomyia and Poltava, drawing together pysanka masters and providing an opportunity to learn about the pysanka as well as dance, sing and eat.

In Ukraine, the art of making pysanka survived through the centuries. Curiously, this art was adopted by a religion that does not recognise some aspects of what the pysanka represents. Amazingly, it survived many decades of Soviet-Communist rule that promoted Marxist, atheistic and anti-individualistic policies and rejected Ukrainian nationalist traditions, expressly forbidding Easter eggs or anything that was vaguely related to Easter, or religion, in general. Resilient, distinctive and beautiful, the ancient traditions of pysanka in Ukraine are very much alive today, e.g.  Pysanky For Ukraine.