Pysanky – Backyard Poultry

The Ukrainian art of writing on eggs

Story by Kenny Coogan. Pictures of Johanna “Zenobia” Krynytzky

“ALL OF EASTERN EUROPE HAS A LONG HISTORY of egg coloring,” Johanna ‘Zenobia’ Krynytzky tells me. Krynytzky’s family is from western Ukraine and she is first generation Ukrainian American. I met her while contacting a local Ukrainian church to find out more about the elaborate pysanky eggs that are popular at Easter.

pysanky eggs
Krynytzky was fascinated by pysanky as a scholar of art history and anthropology. She said it was a perfect marriage of both genders.

“Pysanky (plural of pysanka) is really considered a symbol of Ukrainian nationalism,” Krynytzky explains. Krynytzky, who learned the craft from her grandmother and mother, demonstrated art with her sisters and friends at ethnic fairs, dressed in traditional costumes. She tells me that when the USSR invaded, they banned
coloring Easter eggs in addition to banning the mother tongue of Ukraine,
cultural and religious. His family came to the United States after World War II, like many Ukrainians. The Diaspora has taken it upon itself to continue the
pysanka tradition.

“They think it started in the Bronze Age of the Trypillian culture (5000-2700 BCE). They don’t have any eggs from that time, but they do have a
ceramic egg that has the same patterns as those seen today. Oldest intact
found in Ukraine is about 500 years old and it’s a goose egg, she tells me.

“Before the Christian era, eggs were used to honor nature and all seasons,” adds Krynytzky. “They used the crosses for the four directions. Raindrops, gods and goddesses, goat horns, trees and chickens were all written on eggs. Many of them were taken over by Christianity. In Byzantine times they adopted these symbols as Christian symbols, so the raindrops are now Mary’s tears and the tree of life continued to be popular. The deer and the goats continued, and the stars were now the star of Bethlehem.

These decorative eggs were not only used for Easter. They were made during the dark nights of winter in hopes of the return of spring. In addition to Easter egg baskets, in the Middle Ages young women made a
decorated egg and give it to the boy she loved. He would run home and bring it to his mother for approval! Her mother would review her work and then decide if she would make a good wife.

Pysanky would also be used in burials. Additionally, they would be placed in the eaves of houses for good luck or crushed for cattle. Given year round as gifts, a bowl of them in every home meant the home was well protected.

Pysanky is a family affair and also varies from region to region.

“Today they are puffed, but sometimes they just dried them to preserve them. A highly decorated pysanka was never meant to be eaten,” says Krynytzky. Krashanka are boiled eggs that were also included in baskets These were dyed with a single color vegetable dye and meant to be eaten, though they certainly weren’t as pretty as a pysanka.

The process of writing the wax onto the egg is traditionally done by candlelight. Kistka is the instrument used to write it, historically consisting of a bone, to which a funnel is attached. The artist was heating the wax on the candle. As the art evolved, kistkas were made of plastic, wood, and metal, and today there are electric kistkas!

“Each region of Ukraine has a different style,” says Krynytzky. “Some are more organic and others very geometric. In the mountains, they are more geometric; the people of the plains and steppes of Ukraine have more organic designs, are not so evenly divided, and have a freer form.
Although they can be given as gifts all year round, they are now mainly used for Easter. In Ukrainian churches you will see stacked baskets filled with embroidered garments. The priest will bless all the baskets. “They are placed with traditional bread (paska and babka), krashanka, fresh or smoked sausages and some other meats, cheese and chocolate.”

A 1992 Easter blessing attended by Krynytzky, near the town of Nadvirna, Ukraine.

Krynytzky offers a few different workshops around town and recommends researching Ukrainian Churches or Pysanky Egg Classes to learn more. She says there’s a whole art to splitting the egg the right way. And while some Ukrainians who live in the mountains let their eggs dry out naturally, if you live in a hot environment they can explode – which would be horrible after spending hours and maybe even days decorating.

“Some people decorate them and then blow them out, but that’s a gamble,” she warns. “I have a blank ostrich egg, but I haven’t decorated it yet. It will take hours.

“Ukrainians are all artists,” says Krynytzky. “We almost all sing, dance, paint or embroider.” When she’s not creating pysanky for fun, gifts, or for Pysanky for Peace, she runs and directs Hip Expressions Belly Dance Studio.

“Zenobia was the first warrior princess Xena, and it’s also my mother’s middle name. When I became a professional belly dancer in Chicago, it was fashionable to have a stage name, so I took my stage name as my mother’s middle name.

According to Pysanky For Peace, the Hutzuls — Ukrainians who live in the
Carpathian Mountains – believe that the fate of the world depends on the pysanky. In this effort, they aim to create and collect 100,000 pysanky to raise funds for the Ukrainian people and eventually deliver them to the Ukrainian people once peace is restored in their homeland.

Pysanka means “to write”. Each symbol and each color represents something specific. The lines and waves that surround the eggs represent eternity and the cycle of life. Consider adding these additional shapes and colors to your designs this year.

Each egg has a meaning, depending on the combination of symbols used.

BLACK — Eternity, darkness before dawn
WHITE — Purity, innocence, birth
BROWN — Mother Earth, abundant gifts
RED — Action, fire, passion, love
ORANGE — Strength, ambition
YELLOW — Light, purity, youth
GREEN — Spring, renewal, fertility, freshness
BLUE — Blue skies, good health, truth
PURPLE — Faith, Patience, Wisdom
PINK — Fertility, elegance, calm
GLANS — Preparing for the future
BASKET — Motherhood, giver of life and gifts
THE BEES — Pollinators, good harvest
BIRDS — Never drawn in flight, always at rest. Precursors of spring, fertility
CROSS — Pre-Christian: Symbols of Life, four directions; Christian: Symbol of Christ
DIAMONDS – Awareness
POINTS / TEARS OF MARY — From pain comes unexpected blessings
EVERGREEN TREE — Health, stamina, eternal youthFLOWERPOT — Love, charity, goodwill
VINE — Strong and faithful love
HONEYCOMB — Softness, abundance
HORNS — Nobility, wisdom, triumph
HORSE — Prosperity, endurance, speed
INSECTS — Rebirth, good harvest
RAM — Male, leadership, perseverance
COCK COMB/COCKS – Masculine and rich married life
SPIDER WEB — Patience, skill
DEER/DEER — Wealth, prosperity, leadership
SUN — Symbol of life, love of God
SUNFLOWER — Love of God, love of the sun
TREE OF LIFE – When drawn with four seasons, represents renewal and creation
TRIANGLES — Pre-Christian: air, fire, water Christian: Holy Trinity
WOLF TEETH — Loyalty, a firm grip

KENNY COOGAN is a national food, farm and flower columnist. He is also part of the MOTHER EARTH NEWS and FRIENDS podcast team. He has a Masters in Global Sustainability and teaches workshops on owning chickens, vegetable gardening, training animals and building corporate teams. His new book, Florida carnivorous plantsis available at

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