What are pysanky?

Also known as Ukrainian eggs, pysanky are an ancient art form still practiced today. These are "written" in the traditional way of using beeswax and dye in a wax resistant process, or batik-like process, on real eggshells.

The art of pysanky has been around for a very long time. Some of the oldest discovered pysanky are from 1300 B.C., and some of the symbolism used has been linked to the pottery of the Trypillian culture of Ukraine from 3000 B. C.

A Pysanka of Trypillian Design

The word pysanky is the plural form of the word pysanka, which is derived from a Ukrainian word meaning "to write". When one creates a pysanka, they are "writing" a pysanka.

A traditional pysanka would typically be made using a whole, raw egg. The inside of the egg represents life and is what gives a pysanka its talismanic value. The pysanka is decorated with symbols and colors that have specific meanings, so that they can bless someone's home, harvest, livestock, bring fertility into the home, or honor someone who has died and help them into heaven. They would be used in the home or given as gifts, left on a grave, buried in a field, or hung in a barn.

After Ukrainians adopted Christianity in 988 A.D., many of the symbols took on new meanings that reflected their new religion, while keeping the older pagan meanings to create a blending of old and new. For example, the cross was a symbol of life in pre-Christian times, but is now widely used as a symbol of Christian faith. Each region of Ukraine would have specific symbols and colors they would use in their designs and would be passed down from mother to daughter over the generations. Most designs would be fairly simple compared to modern pysanky.

A Replication of a Traditional Folk Pysanka

After people from all regions of Ukraine emigrated and dispersed across North and South America, along with the traditional symbols and techniques associated with those regions, the pysanka began to reflect this diaspora, blending traditional symbolism from different regions together. It became more of an art form, made for aesthetic reasons and incorporated colors and symbols together in a more complex way. Many pysanky you will find now are not traditional, but are considered to be diasporan, with designs using traditional elements to create intricate works of art.

How are they made?

Traditionally, pysanky were made using only full intact eggs, which were allowed to dry out over the course of several months or even longer. It was said that only a full egg held talismanic power, as it held life within. Some people still like to make them this way, but now a lot of people empty the shells either before or after the pysanka is completed. I work only on empty eggshells, as I find it less risky and easier to varnish afterward.

A white chicken egg that has been blown (the insides removed by blowing air inside the egg) and is ready to be transformed into a pysanka.

A tool called a "kistka" is used to write on the egg with melted beeswax. A kistka can be as simple as a stick with a tiny metal funnel attached to one end that is heated over a candle flame, or as complicated as an electric kistka with interchangeable tips of different sizes that is kept plugged in and at a constant heated temperature. Whatever type of kistka it is, it's purpose is to melt the beeswax so lines of different width can be written on the eggshell.

Three types of kistky (plural of kistka) are shown here, a traditional wooden kistka with a copper funnel attached at one end, a delrin kistka that is machine made with more precise sized brass tips, and an electric kistka that has interchangeable tips of different size and keeps a constant heat. Also show is a cake of yellow beeswax, used to write on the egg once it is placed in the kistka and melted.

Here I am using an electric kistka to write with beeswax on the green egg. Then I will dye the egg another color, but the green will remain.

Wherever wax is applied to the egg, the shell is protected from dye. For example, if wax is applied to a white egg, and then dyed yellow, the parts of the egg that have the wax on will remain white. So then, if wax is applied to the yellow egg, the new wax markings will remain yellow. And so on, as the egg is dyed more colors, usually from light to dark, until the final dye bath is used.

This image shows the dye progression of a pysanka, starting with the white egg with wax, and going on the until the dark purple. The last photo shows the egg after wax has been removed and varnish has been applied.

After the egg dries, the wax can be removed by melting it. There are several ways to do this, such as holding it up to a candle flame, and wiping the melted wax off, placing in a warm oven until the wax is melted enough to wipe off, or using a hair dryer or heat gun to melt the wax. For most, this is the most exciting part of writing pysanky, when the colorful design is revealed!

In this video I am using a heat gun to melt the beeswax off of 3 different pysanky so you can see the moment the design is revealed.

Most people will then protect the egg by varnishing it or, if it is a full egg, they may rub it with oil.

This is how I apply varnish to my finished pysanky.

Finally, the last step is figuring out how to display your pysanka. Usually I try to think about this before I begin, because if I want to hang it as an ornament, I prefer the hole placement to be on top of the egg, but if I want to have it sitting in an egg stand, I like to place the hole at the bottom of the egg. This is just personal preference. Some people like to have two holes, one at either end of the egg, and then hang them using embroidery floss that goes through the shell and create a tassle on the bottom. Some people hang them on their Christmas tree and put them away after the holidays, or have egg trees they keep up year round or perhaps only in spring. Sometimes they are hung from an ornament display stand. Some prefer to have them displayed on egg stands or in baskets or bowls. Wherever you decide to display your pysanka, please keep them out of direct sunlight, or the colors can fade, even if a UV protective varnish is used. Oh, and somewhere they will not be knocked over is also a good idea, because you don't want a broken pysanka!