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The Great Egg Hunt

Whether painted, etched, wrapped in wire or dyed, the incredible, edible egg is still a popular art form.

by Jacqueline Ruyak

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The great egg hunt of 2001 got its start in 1999 when I visited Slovakia for the annual tinkers symposium at the Povazske Museum in Zilina. Before then I knew that Slovakia, like Ukraine, had a long history of decorated Easter eggs and had often seen samples of this colorful art. The symposium, however, was where I first saw wirework eggs made by tinkers. Like other decorated eggs, they are made with blown eggs; unlike other eggs, they are decorated with woven wire. Two years later, again in Slovakia, I finally learned more about these unusual eggs and even ended up crisscrossing the country on an impromptu egg hunt.

Called kraslice in Slovakia, pysanky in Ukraine, decorated eggs are one of the oldest and richest forms of folk art found in Eastern Europe. They first gained attention in the 17th century but their origins lie in prehistoric times, when eggs were ascribed magical powers. Used in seasonal, agrarian and other rituals, eggs were symbols of the sun, light, fertility and spring, as well as the rebirth and continuity of life.

For centuries eggs and decorated eggs were used in countless rituals all over the world. For example, an egg held to a child’s lips was believed to encourage early speech. Placed in a plowed field, it ensured a good crop, while one under a barn entryway protected cows’ health and fertility. Eggs were important in wedding dishes and customs, as well as at Easter. They were also placed on graves to commemorate the dead.

As it did with many other customs and traditions, Christianity adopted the egg and “baptized” it, adding new symbolism associated with Christ’s passion, death and resurrection to the original meaning as well as to the designs.

The English word “Easter” comes from “Eostre,” an ancient Anglo-Saxon goddess. In pagan times an annual spring festival was held in her honor, and some Easter customs developed from this and other pre-Christian spring festivals. In other languages, however, the word for Easter derives from the pasch, or Passover, and Christianity’s paschal feast.

Christianity was quick to see the symbol of Christ’s resurrection in the previously pagan custom. For example, Christians saw the egg’s shell as a symbol of the protective darkness of the life-giving tomb; a hatching chick represented the risen Christ emerging from the tomb on Easter morning. The egg’s shape, with neither beginning nor end, was both a symbol of eternity as well as of the “womb” of the tomb, where the Crucified was given new life.

In addition to the motifs drawn from nature, some egg designers added the symbols of Christ’s passion: the rooster, recalling Peter’s denial; the recurring thorn pattern for the crown of thorns Jesus was made to wear; or the nails and spear of the crucifixion. Primarily, however, the joyful nature symbols prevailed in egg designs, reflecting the joy of the Christian world in the Lord’s victory over death.

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Tags: Central Europe