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.

Eostre and Easter… O, My!

Willow switches are available in the Easter Market in the Old Town Square of Prague. Boys and young men use the switches to swat young ladies in a modern, stylized version of an ancient springtime fertility rite.

Willow switches are available in the Easter Market in the Old Town Square of Prague. Boys and young men use the switches to swat young ladies in a modern, stylized version of an ancient springtime fertility rite.

In most languages, the Christian festival of Christ’s Resurrection is known as “Pascha” or some other version of the name for “Pesach” (Passover), the Jewish feast Jesus celebrated at the Last Supper and during which he was crucified and risen. Only in English is the Christian festival called “Easter,” derived from the Anglo-Saxon goddess Eostre whose springtime feast was supplanted by that of Christ. (Estrogen and estrus and other related words are also derived from the name of the goddess as well.)

Eostre was the goddess of bounty and new life, the regeneration of nature post-winter and fertility. She was attended by rabbits (known for their prolific reproductive abilities) and decorated eggs were exchanged in her honor. (In some places, these decorated eggs were then buried in the earth as gifts to Eostre so that she could know the hopes and dreams of her children, which were depicted in the paintings on the eggs, and then fulfil them.)

A variety of practices were indulged in that were said to promote the fertility of humans and of crops, including switching young women with braided willow branches. Bonfires were a common fertility rite in the non-Christian world and St. Patrick had a major confrontation with the pagan High King of Ireland because he lit the Christian fire for Easter before the king lit the fertility bonfire nearby.

Stories of descent into the netherworld (i.e. winter) and ascent from the netherworld (i.e. spring) were told in connection with Eostre’s celebration, such as that of Persephone and Hades. The well-known “spring cleaning” of homes was part of preparing to welcome Eostre’s arrival back in the world.