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What are Pysanky?

By S. N. Smith
Updated May 16, 2024
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Pysanky (pronounced PEsH-san-keh) refers to the ancient Ukrainian art of decorating eggs by means of a wax resist, or batik, method that produces elaborate, colorful, symbolic designs. Although now mainly used to decorate Ukrainian Easter eggs, pysanky are much older than the Christian holiday, dating back to a time of sun worship. Adopted from the pagan tradition by Christians, pysanky were imbued with symbolism and superstition, and tradition has upheld the customs and rituals of this ancient art.

Unlike conventional Easter eggs, pysanky are not meant to be eaten. In fact, they are made with only raw eggs, or, alternately, empty eggshells from which the yolks and whites have been blown out. If intact eggs are used, the egg and white within the shell will eventually dry out. Intact eggs must be stored in a well-ventilated area and handled with extreme care to avoid breakage. Gases may build up inside the shell, and if the egg breaks, the result is messy and malodorous.

To prepare the egg for decoration, the shell is first wiped with a mild vinegar and water solution. The artist will frequently wear a white cotton glove on the hand holding the egg, to prevent skin oils from settling on the shell and affecting the dye uptake. If the contents of the egg have been blown out, the blow holes are sealed with a bit of wax or glue to prevent the shell from filling with dye. The pysanky artist is then ready to commence decorating the egg. Fine guidelines may be drawn in pencil, sometimes using a rubber band stretched around the circumference of the pysanka (the singular form of pysanky,) as a guide.

The primary tool of the pysanky artist is a special stylus called a kistka, which is used to draw designs on the eggshell in melted beeswax. The traditional kistka was made by wrapping a thin sheet of metal such as brass around a needle and affixing it to a handle. Essentially, the kistka is a hollow cone of metal that acts as a reservoir for melted wax, which is used as the medium for drawing, or writing, the designs on the pysanka.

The bowl of the kistka is heated over a candle flame. When sufficiently hot, it is used to scoop a portion of wax from a brick of beeswax. Then the kistka is returned to the candle flame until the wax inside it is melted. The artist uses the melted wax to write the first stage of his or her design on the white eggshell. The word pysanky originates from this method of "writing" the design, which comes from the word pysaty, meaning “to write.”

After each subsequent stage of the design is written on the pysanka, the egg is dipped into a progressively darker shade of dye. The wax seals the colors underneath it, so that only the eggshell not covered with wax will take up the new color of dye. In this way, several colors of dye may appear on each egg. When the design is complete, the egg is traditionally, though not always, dipped in a bath of black ink dye. After this, all the wax is carefully removed. There are various methods to achieve this, but a favorite involves holding the pysanka near a candle flame until the wax melts, gently wiping away the liquefied wax and revealing the design.

Pysanky designs are highly symbolic—the colors and pattern elements are carefully selected to represent items of significance both to the artist and to the recipients of the pysanky. Generally, younger people were gifted with pysanky decorated in patterns that featured bright colors and white spaces. Elders received pysanky filled with more complex patterns and a deeper spectrum of colors.

Typical symbols include geometric designs (triangles, curls, diamonds), Christian symbols (fish, crosses), flora (fruit, flowers, trees), fauna (birds, insects, animals), man-made objects (tools, nets), and celestial bodies (sun, stars). Colors, too, were highly symbolic, and combinations of colors and patterns were often specific to regions and even families. The following are some examples of design and color symbolism:

Design Elements:

  • Triangle = the Holy Trinity
  • Poppies = joy, beauty
  • Ladder = ascending prayer
  • Horse = strength, prosperity
  • Stars = life, good fortune
  • Pine tree/needles = eternal life, stamina
  • Wheat = health, good harvest

Colors:

  • White = purity, innocence
  • Orange = strength, the sun
  • Red = passion, Christ
  • Blue = health, truth, faithfulness
  • Green = fertility, hope, spring, Epiphany
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