Pysanka Symbolism - Westgate Mennonite Collegiate
A great variety of ornamental patterns are found on pysanky. Because of the egg’s fragility, no ancient examples of
pysanky have survived. However, similar ornamental patterns in occur in pottery, metalwork ,embroidery and other
crafts, many of which have survived.
The symbols which decorated eggs underwent a process of adaptation over time. In prechristian times these symbols
imbued an egg with magical powers to ward off evil spirits, guarantee a good harvest and bring a person good luck.
After 988, when christianity became the state religion of Ukraine, the interpretation of many of the symbols change.
The names and meaning of various symbols and design elements vary from region to region, and even from village to
village. Similar symbols can have totally different interpretations in different places. There are several thousand
different motifs in Ukrainian folk designs. They can be grouped into several families.
GEOMETRIC The most popular pysanka designs 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" (actually 48), became a symbol
of the forty days of lent, the forty martyrs, the forty days that Christ spent in the desert, and the forty life tasks of
married couples. Geometric symbols include the (1)triangle (the Holy Trinity and the elements of air, fire and water),
(2)diamonds (knowledge), (3)curls (defense or protection), (4)tripods (man, woman and child or birth. Life, and death),
and (5)spirals (the mystery of life and death, as well as divinity and immortality).
Dots(1), which once represented stars or cuckoo birds’ eggs (a symbol of spring) became symbols of the tears of the
blessed Virgin. Hearts (2)are also sometimes seen, and , as in other cultures, they represent love.
CHRISTIAN symbols are fairly common, too. The cross(1), which in pagan times represented the four sides of the
earth, now depicted the Holy Trinity. A triangle with a circle in the center denotes the eye of God(2). Stylized
churches(3) are often on pysanky from western Ukraine; a sieve motif inside symbolized the church’s ability to
separate good from evil.
PHYTOMORPHIC DESIGNS The most common designs are those associated with plants and their parts (flowers and
fruit). Women who painted pysanky 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 pysanky 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.
Pysanky created by the mountain people of the Hutsul region of Ukraine often showed a stylized fir tree branch(1), a
symbol of youth and eternal life. Trees(2) symbolized strength, renewal, creation, growth and eternal life, and
leaves(3) and branches (4) symbolized immortality, eternal or pure love, strength and persistence. Oak leaves(5)
symbolized strength and energy.
Pussy willow branches(1) are often depicted on pysanky; in Ukraine, the pussy willow replaces the palm leaf on Palm
Sunday. Wheat (2)symbolizes wishes for good health and a bountiful harvest.
FRUIT symbolizes continuity, good fellowship, strong and loyal love, and love of God. An Easter egg with an apple(1)
or plum(2) motif was thought to bring knowledge and health. The cherry(3), a symbol of feminine beauty, was supposed
to bring happiness and love. Grapes(4) represented brotherhood, goodwill and long-lived and faithful love, as well as
(together with wheat) the Holy Communion. Grapevines(5) signify the good fruits of the Christian life.
FLOWERS express the female principle denoting wisdom, elegance and beauty. Among the flowers (1) depicted on
Easter eggs were rozhy (mallows)(2), poppies (3), sunflowers (4), tulips (5), carnations (6), periwinkle(7) and lily-of
the-valley. Rozhy (mallows) are often very similar to the eight-pointed star motifs, and symbolize love and caring.
Poppies are the beloved flower of Ukraine, symbolizing joy and beauty. Periwinkle represents eternal life. Sunflowers
represent motherhood, life, or the love of God.
A vinok, or garland of flowers, echoes the beautiful garlands worn by Ukrainian girls around their heads during
holidays and celebrations. On the pysanka, vinky are drawn in three circles around the egg, representing the tree parts
of human existence: birth, marriage, and life.
SCEVOMORPHIC DESIGNS are the second-largest group of designs, which are representations of man-made objects.
Agricultural symbols are very common, as Ukraine was a highly agricultural society, and drew many of its positive
images from field and farm. Common symbols include the ladder (symbolizing man's search for happiness or prayers
going up to heaven)(1), a sieve (symbolizing the separation of good and evil)(2), and the basket (symbolizing
motherhood and knowledge)(3).
Rakes (successful harvest)(1) were commonly depicted, along with combs (putting things in order)(2), windows (window
into the heavenly world, female fertility)(3), windmills ( a cross symbol)(4) and the saw (fire, life-giving heat)(5).
ZOOMORPHIC DESIGNS Although animal motifs are not as popular as plant motifs, they are nevertheless found on
pysanky, 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, birds and fish were
depicted in the abstract. Horses (1)were popular ornaments because they symbolized strength and endurance, as well as
wealth, prosperity. Similarly, deer (2)designs were very prevalent as they were intended to bring prosperity and long
life; the stag represented leadership, victory, joy and masculinity. Rams(3) are symbols of leadership, strength,
dignity, and perseverance. Lions(4) symbolize strenght, but are a rarely used symbol
Sometime women simply drew parts of animals; these symbols were a sort of shorthand, but were endowed with all the
attributes of the animal represented. Ducks’ necks, rabbits’ ears, rams’ horns (strong leadership, perseverance, and
dignity)(1), wolves’ teeth (loyalty and wisdom)(2), bear claws (bravery, wisdom, strength and endurance, as well as a
guardian spirit and the coming of spring)(3), and bulls’ eyes(4). Horns of any sort represent nobility, wisdom, and
triumph over problems, and imply manhood and leadership.
BIRDS(1) were considered the harbingers of spring thus they were a commonplace pysanka motif. Birds of all kinds are
the messengers of the sun and heaven, and represent the pushing away of evil; they symbolize fertility, the fulfillment
of wishes, and a good harvest. The bird is always shown at rest, never flying. Roosters(2) are symbols of good fortune,
masculinity, or the coming of dawn and hens(3) represent fertility.
Birds were almost always shown in full profile with characteristic features of the species. Partial representations of
some birds––mostly domestic fowl––are often seen on pysanky. Bird parts (eyes, feet, beaks, combs, feathers) carry the
same meaning as the entire bird. Hen's feet emphasize protection of young(1), duck and goose feet(2) represent the
spirit, and the rooster's comb(3) signifies masculinity, and goose feet are symbols of the soul or the spirit.
Even INSECTS had their place in Ukrainian Easter egg traditions. Spiders (1) and their webs symbolized
perseverance, patience and artistic talent. The butterfly(2) is a symbol of a carefree childhood, as well as the journey of
the soul into eternal happiness. Bees(3) were a symbol of hard work and pleasantness, and represented all the good
insects which should not be killed.
The FISH, originally a symbol of health, came to symbolize Jesus Christ, the fisherman. In old Ukrainian fairy tales,
the fish often helped the hero to win his fight with evil. In the Greek alphabet “fish” (ICHTHYS) is an anagram of
Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior”; it was a secret symbol used by the early Christians. The fish represents abundance, as
well as Christian interpretations of baptism, sacrifice, the powers of regeneration, and Christ himself.
The SNAKE “had”is a creature with mystical powers, and should not be confused with the snake that bites us. In
folklore, the had was a harmless grey snake (asp) that was commonly found by every village house. (Bad people did
not have a had.) The presence of the had protected all the people living in the house. The snake symbol on a pysanka
brings protection from catastrophe.
COSMOMORPHIC DESIGNS Among the oldest and most important symbols of pysanky is the sun, and the simplest
rendering of the sun is a closed circle with or without rays. Pysanky with sun motifs were said to have been especially
powerful, because they could protect their owner from sickness, bad luck and the evil eye. In Christian times the sun
symbol has come to represent life, warmth, and the love and eternal existence of God.
The sun can also appear as a flower or a spiral. The swastika or "a broken cross" or "ducks’ necks" also represented the
sun in pagan times; it can be found in ancient Sanskrit as well.
Pysanky from all regions of Ukraine also depict an eight-sided star, which in the past was a symbol of the sun god
Atar. Six-sided stars can also be seen, and sometimes stars are represented as dots. They were believed to foretell good
fortune. The moon is sometimes seen; it is begged to shed its light at night to help the traveller, and to chase away evil
powers from the household.
ETERNITY BANDS and other dividing elements on pysanky are composed of meanders, waves, lines or ribbons.
The so-called "meander" or eternal line motif is one of the most popular due to an interesting legend. The meander(1) on
a pysanka has no beginning and no end, and thus an evil spirit which happens to enter a house and land on the egg is
trapped forever and will never bother the residents again. It symbolizes harmony, motion, infinity and immortality.
Lines(2)and ribbons(3) represent the thread of life or eternity.
Waves stand for wealth, because it was rain that insured good crops.