Monday, March 31, 2008

Ukrainian Superstitions: Pysanka

I was trying to search for some Ukrainian superstitions other than the ones we had discussed in class and I found out that there are some pretty neat ones dealing with pysanky (painted eggs).

Back when Ukrainians were pagans the sun god was the main focus of worship. Birds were the sun god's favorite creation because they were the only ones that could get near him. Humans couldn't catch the birds, but they could catch their eggs - therefore, eggs were considered magical objects and the source of life.

The Hutsels, who we have also learned about in class, supposedly believe that the fate of the world is dependent on pysanky. "As long as the custom exists," the world will exist. However, if the Hutsels (or maybe everyone) quit the tradition of egg painting evil will take over the world. This evil takes the form of a serpent that is for whatever reason chained to a cliff. Every year this serpent sends out his little followers to see how many pysanky have been produced. If the number is low than the chains holding the serpent to the cliff are lengthened and he is free to cause havoc and destruction all over the earth. If the egg count is high, however, the serpent is chained tighter to the cliff and peace will reign for another year. Similarly, every time a woman paints a pysanka, the devil is pushed farther down into captivity within the depths of hell, and when the last woman in the world ceases to paint pysanky, evil will rule the world.

There are also superstitions attached to the colors of a pysanka egg. An old myth says that it is wise to give old people eggs with dark colors or rich designs because their life has already been fulfilled. For younger people, it is better to give them a primarily white egg because "their pages have yet to be filled." That doesn't seem like it would be a very interesting pysanka. Also, if an egg breaks, one is supposed to bury it.

Lastly, it is bad luck for a girl to give her boyfriend or husband a pysanka with no designs at the top or bottom of the egg because it means he will be bald.

I had to research more, but it's not only Hutsels who believe these superstitions. Most Ukrainians paint pysanky as a favorite past time. Mothers pass it down to daughters, and daughters carry it on for future generations. People take the designs very seriously because each shape or line represents something. Specific results such as fertility and good health are intended when painting these eggs, so symmetry and beauty are key. To give a pysanka as a gift is a sign of love and friendship.

All in all, I think this is very interesting because it is not a "spur of the moment" superstition such as spitting over your shoulder or knocking on wood so as not to jinx yourself. In other words, it is more of a systematic, time consuming procedure with a very long history and religious ties that gets passed down to generations. One thing that I found strange is that this tradition and the superstitions involved with it seem to be oriented towards women: for example, mothers pass it on to daughters, and only when the last woman stops painting pysanky will evil rule the world. The only time guys are really mentioned is when they will grow bald if their girl friend leaves blank spots on the egg. Is it a female-dominated tradition, and even if the men join in with the painting, do they follow the superstitions as much?

These were my sources - the last link is a video:


Brittany said...

This is an awesome topic; I loved learning about the superstitions today in class and I think this one is so interesting! I was curious as to whether this egg-painting had anything to do with Easter, and I found some information through one of your sources. Not too surprisingly, there is a relationship between this superstition and Easter and the Church in the Ukrainian society. Thanks for the post; I really enjoyed it!

Svitlana said...

You are right about the women being involved in the process of decorating pysanky.
"Before a Ukrainian woman could make pysanky, she was supposed to be in a perfect spiritual state of mind. The previous day was spent peacefully: She would avoid gossip, deal with her family patiently and cook a good dinner.
Pysanky were made at night after the children were asleep. Only women in the family could work together and no one else was allowed to peek, since the purpose of creating pysanky was to transfer goodness from the household to the designs and push away evil. This was a mystical expression and not a social event. The fresh eggs were gathered from hens where a rooster was in residence, for, according to belief, if pysanky were made on non-fertile eggs, there would be no fertility in the home.
The women in the family asked different blessings for each egg, for they felt their good wishes traveled with the pysanka. Special songs were sung quietly, so the souls which were said to inhabit the night, would not be disturbed.
Small clay pots were used to hold the dyes which had been made using secret family formulas. The wax lines were drawn on the eggs, and slowly, the simple shells became filled with ancient symbolism, color and harmony...The most important quality of the pysanka, however, is the power and love which the egg conveys...The process took several evenings to finish. In a large family, 60 eggs would be completed by Holy Thursday."
(Kmit, Anne, et al, pp. 22-23)

Lydia said...

I had no idea there were so many superstitions about pysanky. I knew that different colors and symbols represented different things but didn't know that Ukrainian people believe that so much depends on them. Knowing that pysanky are a huge part of Ukrainian culture, it was great to find out why they are so valued. Thanks for the post!

Laura said...

My mom has a few pysanky that she received from her mother. I never knew that the designs had meaning behind them. The eggs that we have are beautifully decorated and extremely fragile, though I've also seen pysanka for sale that are painted wooden eggs- no doubt, a less personal version.
When I was little, I always wondered how they got the eggs to be hollowed out. I did some research and found out that the eggs can either be left dry or be "blown out". The raw egg traditionally stood for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.