Pysanky is the Ukrainian craft of decorated eggs. Pysanka is often taken to mean any type of decorated egg, but it specifically refers to an egg created by the written-wax batik method and utilizing traditional folk motifs and designs. Birds were special to the sun god and eggs were magical objects. The eggs warded off evil spirits.
Many superstitions were attached to pysanky. In addition to warding off evil spirits, Pysanky were thought to protect households from catastrophe, lightning, and fires. Pysanky with spiral motifs were the most powerful, as the demons and other unholy creatures would be trapped within the spirals forever. A blessed pysanka could be used to find demons hidden in the dark corners of your house.
One old Ukrainian myth centered on the wisdom of giving older people gifts of pysanky with darker colors and/or rich designs, for their life has already been filled. Similarly, it is appropriate to give young people pysanky with white as the predominant color because their life is still a blank page. Girls would often give pysanky to young men they fancied, and include heart motifs. It was said, though, that a girl should never give her boyfriend a pysanky that has no design on the top and bottom of the egg, as this might signify that the boyfriend would soon lose his hair.
Pysanky were traditionally made during the last week of Lent, Holy Week in the Orthodox and Greek (Uniate) Catholic calendars. During the middle of the Lenten season, women began putting aside eggs, those that were most perfectly shaped and smooth. If possible they should be the first laid eggs of young hens.
The dyes were prepared from dried plants, roots, bark, berries and insects (cochineal). Black dye was made from walnut husks. Sometimes chemical dyes (of unusual or difficult colors) were purchased from traders along with alum, a mordant that helped the natural dyes adhere better to eggshells.
A stylus, known as a pysachok, (pysak, pysal’tse, or kystka (kistka), depending on region), was prepared. A piece of thin brass was wrapped around a needle, forming a hollow cone. This was attached to a small stick (willow was preferred) with wire or horsehair.
In some regions, mostly in Transcarpathia, a simple pin inserted onto the end of a stick was used instead. Beeswax was heated in a small bowl on the stove and then scooped into the stylus as needed. The molten wax was applied to the white egg with a writing motion; any bit of shell covered with wax would be sealed, and remain white. Then the egg was dyed yellow, and more wax applied, and then orange, red, purple, black. (The dye sequence was always light to dark). Bits of shell covered with wax remained that color. After the final color, usually red, brown, or black, the wax was removed by heating the egg and gently wiping off the melted wax, or by briefly dipping the egg into boiling water.
Boiled eggs were not used, as pysanky were generally written on raw or, less commonly, baked eggs (pecharky). Boiled eggs were dyed red for Easter, using an onion skin dye, and called “krashanky.” The number of colors on an egg was usually limited, as natural dyes had very long dyeing times, sometimes hours.
Pysanky continue to be made in modern times; while many traditional aspects have been preserved, new technologies are in evidence. Aniline dyes have largely replaced natural dyes. Styluses are now made with modern materials. Traditional styluses are still made from brass and wood, but those made with more modern plastic handles are gaining in popularity. An electric version of the stylus has been commercially available since the 1970s, with the cone becoming a metal reservoir which keeps the melted beeswax at a constant temperature and holds a much larger amount than a traditional stylus. These newer styluses (whether electric or not) also sport machined heads, with sizes or the opening ranging from extra-fine to extra-heavy.
Be sure to look up images of Pysanky to see how amazing this craft is!