Pysanky Can Save the World

My collection of decorated eggs from Prague and Salzburg on display as an Easter egg tree in 2015.

Pysanky are the decorated eggs in Ukraine or other Slavic areas which are a very important part of the holiday season. It is important to keep making new pysanky every year to replace those that were broken by accident last year because the pysanky keep an evil dragon away from the earth. The more pysanky there are in the world, the further away the dragon must hide. But if there are too few pysanky, then the dragon can come closer and if there are really not enough pysanky in the world then the dragon can eat the earth!

Easter baskets were traditionally baskets of holiday food (meat, cheese, eggs — all the things that people were supposed to be fasting from during Lent!) that were brought to church to be blessed. Easter Monday was a good time to keep eating what was in the Easter baskets as well as enjoy the decorations and displays of Easter eggs. In many parts of Central Europe, people make “Easter trees” to hang their elaborately decorated Easter eggs on.

Pysanky were thought to protect households from evil spirits, catastrophe, lightning and fires. Pysanky with spiral motifs were the most powerful, as the demons and other unholy creatures would be trapped within the spirals forever.

Pysanky held powerful magic, and had to be disposed of properly, lest a witch get a hold of one. She could use the shell to gather dew, and use the gathered dew to dry up a cow’s milk. The witch could also use bits of the eggshell to poke people and sicken them. The eggshell had to be ground up very finely (and fed to chickens to make them good egg layers) or broken into pieces and tossed into a running stream.

The cloth used to dry pysanky was powerful, too, and could be used to cure skin diseases. And it was considered very bad luck to trample on a decorated egg -– God would punish anyone who did with a variety of illnesses.

There were superstitions regarding the colors and designs on the pysanky. One old Ukrainian myth centered on the wisdom of giving older people gifts of pysanky with darker colors and/or rich designs, for their life has already been filled. Similarly, it is appropriate to give young people pysanky with white as the predominant color because their life is still a blank page. Girls would often give pysanky to young men they fancied, and include heart motifs. It was said, though, that a girl should never give her boyfriend a pysanky that has no design on the top and bottom of the egg, as this might signify that the boyfriend would soon lose his hair.

The Golem, the Jinni, and the Syrians in New York

“The Golem and the Jinni,” by Helene Wecker was nominated for the Nebula Award for Best Novel and the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel, and won the 2014 Mythopoeic Award.

These two books–one a novel, the other a study of Arab immigrants to Manhattan’s Lower East Side–are a fascinating pair to read in conjunction with each other. The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker tells the story of two mythical beings–one Jewish, the other Syrian– which takes readers on a dazzling journey through cultures in turn-of-the-century New York. Strangers in the West: The Syrian Colony of New York City, 1880-1900 by Linda K. Jacobs tells the never-before-told story of the first Arab immigrants to settle in Manhattan.

Both books explore many themes but one that stands out is the tolerance individuals from each community had for the other even as each community–as well as the broader society of Manhattan–struggled with the presence of those they each considered “the Other.” The twists and turns of the novel reflect the twists and turns of historic life for the immigrants who struggled to make new lives for themselves and their families in the New World. (I never quite appreciated how radical the idea of the New World was until I saw The Hunt for Red October (based on Tom Clancy’s book) and heard Jack Ryan (Alec Baldwin) welcome Soviet submarine captain Marko Ramius (Sean Connery) to the New World after Capt. Ramius quotes Christopher Columbus’ musings that “the sea will grant each man new hope, as sleep brings dreams of home.”)

Too many people seem too eager to demonize a wide variety of “Others” in modern society. Add either–or BOTH!–of these books to your “Want to Read” list and see how we were able to overcome such attempts at demonization in the past while enjoying wonderful storytelling!

Want to know more? Read the Huffington Post article about Strangers in the West or my post about The Golem and the Jinni.

“Strangers in the West” by Linda K. Jacobs tells the story of this classic multiethnic neighborhood which had a dominant Arabic-speaking influence from the 1880s to 1940s, and which served as the “Mother Colony” for the substantial Syrian and Lebanese immigration to the United States.

Will you be Meeting the Krampus or Čert?

krampus-stuffing-children-into-basket

Traditionally on December 5th and 6th, St. Nicholas walks from house to house in the cities and villages of Alpine and Central Europe to admonish and laud young and old. In the Alpine regions, he is accompanied by a Krampus (an evil creature, a devil of sorts), who is going to punish the bad children and adults on St. Nicholas′ command. For the honest children he normally has little presents. In Prague and the Czech-speaking areas of Central Europe, the čert (a clearly demonic character) accompanies St. Nicholas.

In Come Hell or High Water, both St. Nicholas and his čert appear:

“It was commonly supposed [in 1356] that St. Nicholas, as he made his rounds bestowing gifts on children and the needy, was accompanied by both a tar-covered čert, a pitch-black devil, as well as a bright and glorious andel, an angel of light, who each argued for or against the worthiness of the recipient of the saint’s benefactions. The čert was always ready, at the slightest nod from the saint, to carry away the unworthy beggar or misbehaving child and–throughout the year–parents could always warn their children that they might be carried away by the čert….”

St. Nicholas himself is a Christian figure, the fourth century bishop of Myra. As son of a well-situated family, he started to help poor people who lived in deep poverty. He was supposed to have miraculous vigor and so he became patron of the seamen, children and poor people. (See a previous post about St. Nicholas and his care for the poor here.) In most modern versions of the St. Nicholas story, he is accompanied by a monster or servant (the Dutch describe his assistant as Black Peter) who punishes the bad children while Nicholas himself rewards the well-behaved children.

The figure of the Krampus is based on pre-Christian custom. The Krampusse not only punish the bad children but had the function at one time of driving out the winter devils and blizzard sprites. Originally the custom of the Krampus was spread over all of Austria but was forbidden by the Catholic Church during the Inquisition. It was prohibited by death to masquerade as a devil or an evil creature and so this custom only survived in some remote, inaccessible, regions of the Alps from where it slowly spread back across the western parts of Austria again. Today the Krampusse revels are especially popular in Salzburg. As many times as I have been to Salzburg, I have never been there during Krampusse-time; I would dearly love to be there to see the processions and parades of costumed characters in the streets.

St. Nicholas and the Krampus procession in Salzburg (2010); photo by Charlotte Anne Brady.

St. Nicholas and the Krampus procession in Salzburg (2010); photo by Charlotte Anne Brady.

Krampus revels at the Salzburg Christmas Market, 2011; photo by Neumayr/MMV 05.12.2011

Krampus revels at the Salzburg Christmas Market, 2011; photo by Neumayr/MMV 05.12.2011