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The Easter Egg's Pagan Origins

The egg, as a symbol of life, fertility, purity and eternity, has been prominent in the rituals, traditions and beliefs of people around the world, in a wide range of geographical regions and cultures since ancient times.  However, the origins of decorating eggs for spring equinox, or Easter, is believed to be Ukranian.  

Pysanka (писанка, plural: pysanky) is the name, in Ukrainian for decorated Easter eggs decorated with traditional folk designs. The tradition pre-dates Christianity and traced to the pagan new year and the re-birth of spring.  With the official Christianization of Ukraine in the tenth century, the tradition was subsumed into the Christian system of belief, without ever completely losing its former significance. 

The tradition began in the early middle ages as an art form and accessible means of communication for ordinary people who would have been “illiterate,” to create ritual objects and record their lives and beliefs in a symbolic language…on an egg.   

The symbols which decorate pysanky underwent a process of adaptation over time. In pre-Christian times these symbols imbued an egg with magical powers to ward off evil spirits, guarantee a good harvest, insure fertility, and bring a person good luck. Pysanky were talismans, ritual objects. 

After 988, when Christianity became the official state religion of Ukraine, pysankarstvo and other pagan practices were banned.  This banning of old religious traditions was more successful among the ruling classes. The practice of creating small ceramic pysanky, which were included in the graves of upper class women and children, disappeared entirely.

The people, though, resisted these changes (often violently), and clung to their old beliefs and practices, so eventually an accommodation was made through a process of religious syncretism.  The pysanka was adapted to the new religion, and eventually accepted as a Christian talisman.  Later, Pysanky almost died out in Ukraine when the country was occupied by the Soviet Union and the custom was banished. After Ukrainian Independence in 1991, pysanky experienced a rebirth. 
The first laid eggs of young hens are traditionally used because of their smoothness and good shape, and only fertilized eggs were used in tradition. Pysanky are decorated with a wax dyed using plants and natural dyes, which are often prepared in secret because tradition says mothers pass on their knowledge to their daughters. The decorating of the pysanky was also traditionally done in secret after the younger children had gone to bed. The women of the family would gather in the night, say the appropriate prayers & then begin decorating. 
Pysanky were considered to be a talisman, a protector against evil, as well as bringing good luck and often given as gifts with a special meaning. The traditional symbolic ornamentation consists of animal and plant elements and geometric designs to represent nature, spirit, and agriculture.
easter eggs pagan roots
Wheat, to symbolize good health and harvest, Deer or Horses for prosperity, pine needles for health and stamina, sun and stars for life, fortune and growth. The triangles represent air, fire and water. 
easter pagan roots
 These traditional Ukrainian symbols can be found throughout Ukrainian decorative folk art today –on embroideries, ceramics, paper cutwork, weavings, wall paintings, carved wood, metalwork–and are still in use today

Read more about the history and global celebrations of Spring Equinox and Easter here. 

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