Saturday, April 3, 2010

Pysanky ...Ukrainian Easter Eggs

Legend of the Pysanka (Ukrainian Easter Egg)

Among Ukrainians there is a belief that the fate of the world depends upon pysanky. As long as egg decorating continues, the world will exist. should the custom cease, evil in the guise of an ancient, vicious monster chained to a huge cliff, will encompass the world and destroy it. Each year the monster's servants encircle the globe, keeping a record of the number of pysanky made. Should there be too few, the monster's chains loosen, and evil flows through the world. If there are many, the monster's chains hold taut, allowing love to conquer evil. (from Surma's website)

Ok, I am pushing the food thing here a bit today. Yes, they are made from eggs and eggs are food. But these are not edible. Not that you would want to after all the work put into making them!
Last year, I posted about them, but in case you missed that, let me tell you what they are. They are pysanky, a traditional Ukrainian method of decorating eggs, Easter eggs.

It is believed the the ancient people in the area that is now the Ukraine, the Trypillian, were perhaps making   eggs like these thousands of years ago and then, when Christianity came to the region, the symbolism was adapted to the Christian themes of the rebirth of man from sin, and the legends surrounding them moved from monsters to more religious ideas. To quote my friends at Wikipedia...

"One legend concerns the Virgin Mary. It tells of the time Mary gave eggs to the soldiers at the cross. She entreated them to be less cruel to her son and she wept. The tears of Mary fell upon the eggs, spotting them with dots of brilliant color.
Another legend tells of when Mary Magdalene went to the sepulchre to anoint the body of Jesus. She had with her a basket of eggs to serve as a repast. When she arrived at the sepulchre and uncovered the eggs, the pure white shells had miraculously taken on a rainbow of colors.

A common legend tells of Simon the peddler, who helped Jesus carry his cross on the way to Calvary. He had left his goods at the side of the road, and, when he returned, the eggs had all turned into intricately decorated pysanky."
It uses a written-wax batik method and, in fact, the name comes from 'pysaty', which means "to write".
In theory, the idea of how they are made is simple. You start with a raw egg, say a white egg, although you can use brown eggs and not only chicken, but goose or ostrich and any sort of egg. You then decide what parts of the egg you would like to remain white in the final egg and apply melted wax to that part. You then dye it the next darker color in your plan, say yellow. Then you apply wax to what you want to remain yellow and then dye the next darker color. So you go with each color, adding element after element to the design. At the end, when you have dyed it the darkest color, be that black or brown or dark blue or dark red, you will remove all the wax and have your hopefully beautiful, colorful egg.
Usually, they are then varnished to give then a shine and offer a bit of protection.

I am not Ukrainian, not one little bit. Then how did I start making them you might wonder. Well, a girl I went to high school with was very Ukrainian By which I mean her parents were immigrants and took passing on the culture very seriously) and it was she that first showed me a decorated egg. Then I went to a Ukrainian store in NYC, Surma, and saw the display of decorated eggs they had, and I was hooked.

If you are interested in giving it a try there is a great deal of information on the internet, many books with instructions and designs, and even a number of videos showing you how to get started. The supplies you need are also available and a basic set is not expensive. In fact, I think Surma has a basic kit available for about $20 and I am sure others are available.

You will need dyes and you really must use the special pysanky dyes to get the vivid colors. You will also need some beeswax, either natural colored or the easier to see black beeswax. It certainly helps to have some images to give you ideas and you can buy postcards with picture on them, what I first worked from, or now, of course there are countless images online. And lastly, you will need a kistka, the tool to apply the wax. Basically a kitska is a metal, cooper, brass or stainless steel, cone attacked to a traditional wooden or newer plastic handle. You heat the metal tip in a candle, dip it in the wax, which will melt, and then 'write' on the egg. They also make electric kitska these days, but I like my candle.

Simple in theory, a bit more taxing in practice. Traditionally, every design and every color has a meaning. But beyond the traditional designs, you are limited only by your imagination. I have seen Christmas, Celtic, modern abstract designs As I said, the sky is the limit, but personally I am a fan of the more traditional style, especially geometric designs.
The work is intricate and you have to be patient...and careful, because remember, you are working with a raw egg and it is terrible to break an egg you have spent hours working on. But so rewarding when you hold that egg up to the heat and start to wipe of the black wax and find the treasure below!

This is my contribution this to this week's Weekend Cooking.
"Weekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, fabulous quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend."
Be sure to check out the other entries this week. As always, hosted by Beth Fish Reads.


  1. These are absolutely beautiful! Poland has something similar, although I think their eggs are wooden and are painted, but the look the same. Hey I think this counts as something foodish!

  2. I am only sorry that I don't have any better ones to photograph, since I gave all the best ones away and have not made any new ones in a long time.

    I have all the stuff I need, as you can see, so I should. Just need some mason jars for the dyes...and a candle...a pencil...very thick rubber band...

  3. I loved this post Caite and the pictures are lovely; thanks so much

  4. Catie these are so beautiful! Thank you for sharing your art and this tradition!

  5. Wow, those are beautiful! I love the colours.

  6. These are beautiful. There was a woman featured in our local newspaper this week who makes these. She said it slows her down and makes her appreciate beauty. I think the moment of unveiling when you take the wax off must be very satisfying! Fun post - thanks for sharing.

  7. Is there some reason you use a raw egg as opposed to hard boiled? These are so beautiful and must take an inordinate amount of patience. Happy Easter to you and your family.

  8. thank you for the most wonderful post. I absolutely love these eggs and have since I was a little girl. Mom would get hers' out and put them in a glass jar with a lid so we wouldn't touch them. I would drool after them. A neighbour of my grand mother would make them

  9. Your eggs are beautiful and I enjoyed reading about them, especially the monster story. It's a lovely tradition and I don't mind if you post about them every year.

  10. First -- you have not pushed the theme one little bit! And I'm with Margot, this a post you can use every year; the stories and the process are so interesting. If those are not your best eggs, then I'm totally floored. WOW!!! They are beautiful.

    How long do they last? Do they spoil?

  11. Great post my friend, but this methinks I missed use a raw egg? At what point do they begin to get rotten? Or is the dying process such that it cooks the eggs in hot dye?

    I'm so confused..

  12. yes, a raw egg.
    why? well I think it because if the natural surface of the egg is disturbed the dye will not be adsorbed evenly. you need to just rinse then in water or a little vinegar, Some people don't even used commercially processed eggs by try to get them unwashed from a farmer. Choosing eggs is an issue if you are aiming for perfection.

    Well then, will the raw egg go bad?
    there are three views. Some people empty the egg, blow it out, blocking the hole, before dyeing. some do it after, when the egg is done.

    and some don't do it at all. those eggs I made were never emptied and there is no smell or issue. over time they just evaporate and dry out.
    now is you broke it....

  13. I used to make these with my baba years and years ago. Sadly she's gone now or maybe I'd still be making them. Quite the process though; not sure I'd have the patience now. Great post Caite-the eggs are gorgeous.

  14. I had never heard this legend before. Thanks for sharing!

  15. A Ukrainian woman came and taught my Mom's Club how to do these eggs years ago--it was so fun! Mine didn't turn out as good as your pictures, though.

  16. We have a beautiful egg like that and we hang it on our Christmas tree every year.

  17. Now that I have found all my you can see in the photos, I am thinking of making some new eggs. Need some mason jars, set up a workplace...
    Maybe I will have an egg giveaway.

    Maybe I will some Christmas eggs or something a little non-traditional.

  18. These are so pretty! There is a lady who lives near us who makes them, and her house is full of them. It seems like being in a magic place! (and hearing about all it takes to make them, maybe it is!)

  19. I was hoping you'd do a post on these this year!! ((I guess I've been reading your blog for a year now ... I remember last year too!)

    My mom got my Little One a wooden version of this egg and told him about how this was part of our heritage (as we are Ukrainian, partly) and told him how she made them. We got to try some when I was younger and they came out OK so I'm sure you'll do great. I think I need to get my supplies too to keep this tradition alive in the family. Thanks for the heads-up on where to find supplies.

  20. Jenners, if I was Ukrainian, I would have a way better excuse to make them!
    seriously, I think it is so nice to retain your hertiage.
    That is why I read...the Irish are huge readers...oh, and why I think tea

    If I can be of any pysanky help, just ask.

  21. Oh this post brings back memories! My youngest child had a teacher who held an after school program for those wanting to learn to decorate Pysanka eggs. We went on to purchase all the materials and did many at home. Even though she is 20 she just said this yr we must make them again. I have kept a few as well.

  22. Great informative site, beautiful eggs, pysanky is something that was handed down to me through my mother and I know teach to my grandchildren. Thanks for sharing.

  23. Just read this article. This is so cool - now I HAVE to try my hand at making these. I think my kids would be enamoured also - they are teens so the wax is fine... GREAT post (and I agree that eggs count as food, even if you don't eat them!)


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