Friday, 6 April 2012

Elephant No. 187: Pysanka

It's Good Friday today in the Gregorian calendar, so I thought I'd try making a Ukrainian Easter egg, or pysanka. Strictly speaking, this isn't a real pysanka, since by definition a pysanka is an egg decorated with traditional Ukrainian folk designs, rather than any old egg made with a wax resist.

The word pysanka (pl. pysanky) comes from the verb pysaty ("to write"), because the designs are not painted but written with beeswax. Beeswax is drawn on using a stylus, then dyed, then drawn on again, then dyed in a darker colour and so forth. There is a specialized stylus for pysanky called a kistka; however, a fine-tipped tjanting for batik can also be used. Although the Ukrainians are among the best-known practitioners of this particular art, many other Eastern European groups decorate eggs using a similar process.

Traditional wooden kistka.

The art of egg-decorating in the Ukraine probably dates back to ancient times, although no actual examples have been found. Some ornamented ceramic eggs have been found, however, in sites related to the Trypillian culture (ca. 5000–3000 B.C.). The oldest true pysanka found so far was excavated in 2008, and was made around the end of the seventeenth century A.D. Although crushed, the egg was complete, and features geometrical designs against a blue-grey background.

Eggs decorated with nature symbols were an important part of a spring ritual involving the Slavic sun god Dazhboh. According to legend, birds were sacred to Dazhboh, and were the only creatures able to get near him. Although humans could never catch the birds, they could gather the eggs. This made the eggs magical objects, seen as a source of life and rebirth after the darkness of winter.

In Christian times, the egg came to be associated with the resurrection and rebirth of humankind. With the adoption of Christianity in the Ukraine in A.D. 988, decorated pysanky were adapted to the new religion. Over time, the art flourished. Under the Soviets, however, the production of pysanky was viewed as a religious practice and was banished, and many museum collections of pysanky were destroyed. In time, pysanky were all but forgotten in the Ukraine, surviving primarily within Ukrainian communities in North and South America. Since Ukrainian independence in 1991, there has been a rebirth of pysanky in the Ukraine.

Interestingly, the Hutsuls—a people living in the Carpathian Mountains of the western Ukraine—believe that the fate of the world rests upon pysanky. As long as the custom continues, the world will exist. If the custom is abandoned, evil in the shape of a terrible serpent will overrun the world. Each year, the story goes, the serpent—who is forever chained to a cliff—sends out his minions to see how many pysanky have been created. If the numbers are too low, his chains are loosened, and he becomes free to wander, wreaking havoc and destruction. If, however, enough pysanky have been created, his chains are tightened and good triumphs over evil for another year.

Pysanky—the way they're supposed to look.
Photo: Luba Petrusha

More commonly, pysanky were thought to protect homes from evil spirits, fire, lightning and other sorts of catastrophe. Eggs with spiral patterns were the most powerful, as evil spirits would be trapped within the spiral forever. Blessed pysanka could also be used to find hidden demons in the home. Even the cloth used to dry pysanky was powerful, and was believed to cure skin diseases.

Commonly given as gifts, pysanky had different meanings, based on colour and pattern. One of my favourites of these is the belief that a girl should never give her beau a pysanka with no design on the top and bottom, as this might cause the young man to lose his hair. For more on pysanky, including history and associated practices and beliefs, there is an excellent overview here.

For today's elephant, I followed some instructions I found online here. There are many other tutorials and videos available online, most of which follow this simple formula:

1. Draw with wax on an egg.
2. Dip the egg in a light colour of dye.
3. Put more wax on the egg where you want to preserve the first dye colour.
4. Dip the egg in a darker colour of dye.
5. Apply more wax.
6. Dip again. Repeat steps five and six as often as you like.
7. Remove wax by running it close to the side of a candle flame and wipe off melted wax.
8. Varnish egg.

That was the theory, anyway, and in practice it is relatively simple. I just lacked the knack.

I started by taking two eggs out of the refrigerator and letting them sit at room temperature for a couple of hours. It's better if they're at room temperature so that the wax adheres. Too cold an egg will make the wax pop right off.

Most instructions say to draw something lightly with pencil first, so I did that. The pencil lines should be light, so that they will mostly lift away with the wax when you wipe the egg down at the end. Another helpful tip, if you want to draw straight lines, is to put a wide rubber band around the egg—the kind that you either find wrapped around broccoli, or the longer ones sometimes wrapped around your mail. I tried this with much trepidation, afraid I'd end up snapping the rubber band around the egg by accident, exploding yolk and white all over the place.

For a stylus, I used a tjanting that I bought just for this. I tried to find an actual kitska, but there were none to be had locally on short notice. I loaded up the tjanting with wax, heated it in a candle, and started drawing.

I realized right away that I suck at drawing with wax. It took me a few minutes to realize that I needed to keep the tip of the tjanting warm, and that it worked better if I tilted it downwards. Even though I'd never used this tool before, you'd think I'd have figured out that much.

Although my eggs felt like they were room temperature, they were probably not as warm as I thought, because some of the wax started popping off right away. Also, I didn't use pure beeswax, which was clearly a mistake. Beeswax would likely have stuck to the egg better than the mixed wax I used.

Before putting the egg in its first dye bath, it should be dipped in vinegar. This removes finger oils and allows the dye to take better. I used yellow for my first colour.

The yellow was disappointingly light, so I guess the dye tablets weren't as dark as they looked in the photograph. I added some more wax, dipped it in vinegar again, then dunked the egg in pink. This was a much more saturated colour. However, more wax popped off, allowing the dye to go where I didn't want it.

I added more wax, including wax over some of my previous lines. I dipped it in vinegar again, and this time dipped it in purple. This was also weirdly light, so I dipped the egg in blue instead. This gave me a purple I could live with.

At the same time, I decided to try doing an egg without drawing a design first. I dipped this one in pink after the first wax, then blue, ending up with the same problem of wax popping off.

I let them both air-dry for about half an hour, then patted them dry with paper towel. To remove the wax, I lit a candle and placed the egg in the side of the flame, then wiped it with a paper towel. I found this part slightly tedious. Also, a word of warning: never put the egg directly in the flame, or you'll end up with soot embedded in your design. I made that mistake once or twice when I zoned out for a moment; luckily, only the wax got sooty, so it could still be wiped away.

If I decide to keep these, they'll need to be varnished. Varnishing will keep the insides from rotting, and the egg should dry out naturally over time—a period of years, apparently. Alternatively, you can remove the insides with a syringe, then seal the hole with a bit of white glue.

I was somewhat disappointed in my pysanky, but it's my own fault. I should have used beeswax, and I should have used more concentrated dyes. These were egg dyes and looked very rich on the packets, but I should maybe have used the cold-water dyes more commonly used for tie-dye and the like. I also should have left the eggs in the vinegar a little longer, I think, because there are some strange white scuff marks here and there that I think must be finger oils.

If I were to view this as a more fluid, less structured design idea, I might almost be able to live with these. But as pysanky, they're hilariously bad. I may try this again next Easter, once I've had more time to track down the proper materials, and learned how to use the tjanting or an real kistka.

On the other hand, maybe I'll just buy pysanky from people who actually know what they're doing.

Elephant Lore of the Day
One of the more unusual features of the Carpathian Mountains of the western Ukraine is an abandoned mountaintop observatory colloquially known as the White Elephant. Some speculate that the name comes from the shape of the observatory when covered in ice and snow; others suggest that its name derives from the fact that it was an expensive and ultimately impractical project.

Built of local sandstone—said to have been cemented with mortar strengthened with the yolks and whites of chicken eggs—the Marshal Jozef Pilsudski Astronomical and Meteorological Observatory was a massive construction project. It required tons of stone and equipment to be dragged to the top of Mount Black, and took nearly three years to complete.

Ruins of the Marshal Jozef Pilsudski Astronomical and
Meteorological Observatory, western Ukraine.
Photo: M. Chynko

The observatory opened to much fanfare in 1938, but operated for only 14 months. As the Second World War intensified, the observatory's scientists decided that discretion was the better part of valour, and fled. The observatory's equipment was dismantled, ending up first in Hungary, then Vienna.

For more than 70 years, the White Elephant has been left to fall apart. The site has long been scavenged for the copper sheeting that once coated the roof, as well as floorboards, plumbing and wiring. Over the past decade, however, there has been talk of rebuilding the White Elephant. A possible Polish-Ukrainian initiative aims at restoring the observatory as a centre for the study of indigenous Carpathian flora.

The White Elephant in winter.

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