UAZone The Symbolism of the Ukrainian Easter Egg.
Adapted from the original story of Sofia Zielyk.

Ukrainian Easter eggs embody a myriad of symbolism: the symbolism of the egg itself, the symbolism of design and the symbolism of design and the symbolism of color. Why is it that the egg became one of the most important elements in the system of pagan beliefs? It is not difficult to understand. After all the egg is a symbol of birth it is the origin of life. It is the power of the egg to create a new life that made it so mysterious to pagan believers, who thus incorporated it into their various rituals.

The egg yolk reminded them of the sun, which was regarded as the most powerful natural element. According to one legend birds were the favorite creatures of the sun god because they alone could soar into the heavens. People, being mere mortals, could not fly, but they could collect eggs, which they associated with the all-powerful sun god. In addition to this, the egg produced a rooster who they believed had the power to summon the sun every morning. With the advent of Christianity to Ukraine the egg became an important part of the Easter ritual associated with the new religion and many legends handed down throughout the ages relates the story of the origin of Easter eggs. When Christ was dying on the cross blood flowing from his many wounds fell on the ground. Wherever a drop fell a red Easter egg was created. Christ's mother, Mary, was standing beneath his cross praying and crying. Those red Easter eggs on which her tear would land, in turn, became elaborately decorated Easter eggs. Mary gathered all the eggs into a kerchief and went to Pontius Pilate to ask for permission to bury her son. On her way there she gave an Easter egg to each child she met, along with the admonition to live in peace. Arriving a the palace of Pilate, Mary fainted and the Easter eggs from her kerchief rolled all over the world, from that day on people everywhere decorate eggs at Easter time and give them to each other as an expression of love and peace. Thus in Ukrainian folklore a pagan ritual was incorporated into Christianity.

The symbols, which decorated pagan eggs, underwent a similar process of adaptation to the new religion. In pagan times these symbols imbued an egg with magical powers to ward off evil spirits, guarantee a good harvest and bring a person good luck. While the pagan spring ritual celebrated a new beginning for the earth after a cold winter, the Christian holiday of Easter celebrates a new life for people's souls and their redemption through the process of Lenten fasting and Christ's resurrection. The symbols and ornaments on the eggs didn't change; what changed was simply their interpretation.

Among the oldest and most important symbols of Easter egg is the sun and the simplest rendering of the sun is a closed circle with or without rays. Easter eggs from all regions of Ukraine also depict an eight-sided star, which in the past was a symbol of the sun. The swastika or as it was called "a broken cross" or "ducks necks" represented the sun in pagan times. Those eggs were said to have been especially powerful talisman because they could protect the owner from sickness, bad luck and the evil eye. Easter eggs however, were imbued with the power not only to protect individuals from harm but also to protect and preserve the human race. One legend says that in a faraway cave lives a monster, which is the embodiment of evil. He is chained to a rock with twelve chains. From his prison the monster sends his henchmen all over the earth and upon their return he asks them: "Are people living in peace?" "Do children respect their parents?" If people fight and don't respect their parents the monster rejoices they are his people." Do they still make Easter eggs?" he asks. If the answer is yes, he rages, while his chains are tightened and his evil powers falter. It is said that while people live in peace, respect their parents, and make Easter eggs, the evil monster will remain chained to the rock. When people stop making Easter eggs he will be set free and evil will rule the earth.

Women who painted Easter eggs drew their inspiration from the world of nature, depicting flowers, trees, fruits, leaves and whole plants in the highly stylized fashion. Such ornaments symbolized the rebirth of nature after winter; thus Easter eggs with plant motifs were guarantee of a good harvest. The most popular floral design is a plant in a vase of standing on its own, which symbolized the tree of life. The cherry, a symbol of feminine beauty, was supposed to bring happiness and love. Easter eggs created by the mountain people of the Hutsul region of Ukraine often showed a stylized fir tree branch, a symbol of youth and eternal life. Grapes represented brotherhood, goodwill and long-lived and faithful love. An Easter egg with an apple or plum motif was thought to bring knowledge and health. Among the flowers depicted on Easter eggs were roses, sunflowers, tulips, carnations, periwinkle and lily-of-the-valley. They were all intended to help nature blossom and thrive.

Although animal motifs are not as popular as plant motifs, they are nevertheless found on Easter eggs, especially those of the people of the Carpathian Mountains. Such symbols had a double function: they were intended to endow the owner with the best characteristics of a given animal such as health and strength; at the same time they were supposed to ensure animals with a long and productive life. Deer, rams, horses, fish and birds were depicted in the abstract; sometime women simply drew parts of animals: ducks necks, rabbits ears, chicken feet, rams horns, wolfs teeth, bear claws and bulls eyes. Horses were popular ornaments because they symbolized strength and endurance. Similarly, deer deigns were very prevalent as they were intended to bring prosperity and log life. Birds were considered the harbingers of spring thus they were a commonplace Easter egg motif. Even insects had their place in Ukrainian Easter egg traditions. Spiders symbolized perseverance, patience and artistic talent. The butterfly is a symbol of a carefree childhood, as well as the journey of the soul into eternal happiness.

The most popular Easter egg sidings are geometric figures. The egg itself is most often divided by straight lines into squares, triangles and other shapes. These shapes are then filled with other forms and designs. One interesting adaptation of the geometric design is the ornament called "forty triangles", became a symbol of the forty days of lent, the forty martyrs, or the forty days that Christ spent in the desert. Among other popular geometric designs are the ladder (symbolizing man's search for happiness), a sieve (symbolizing the separation of good and evil), the basket (symbolizing motherhood and knowledge), a double line depicting a path (symbolizing eternity). The so-called "meander" or eternal line motif is one of the most popular in Ukrainian Easter Egg painting. This motif owes its popularity to an interesting legend. The meander on an Easter egg has no beginning and no end thus an evil spirit which happens to enter a house and land on the egg is trapped forever and will never other the residents again.

There is a whole host of pagan symbols, which were adapted in accordance with the new Christian faith. Dots, which once represented stars or cuckoo birds eggs (a symbol of spring) became symbols of the tears of the blessed Virgin. The fish, originally a symbol of health, came to symbolize Jesus Christ, the fisherman, the cross which in pagan times represented the four sides of the earth, now took on the triad of earth, wind and fire now depicted the Holy Trinity.

I would be remiss if I did not mention one of the oldest ornaments found on Ukrainian Easter eggs the goddess Beregynia, a matriarchal symbol. She was the goddess of life and fertility, mother of all living things. On Easter eggs she is usually depicted as a woman with upraised arms.

It is not only ornaments on Easter eggs which carry symbolic weight; colors also make a difference. Every area of Ukraine had its specific color combination; although the oldest Easter eggs were simply two-toned, our pagan ancestors believed that the more colors on a decorated egg the more magical powers it held and could thus bring the owner a better fate.

 
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