Oleksa Voropay / Олекса Воропай


From Oleksa Voropay, "Folk Customs of Our People"  (1958, pp. 259-261)

The customs of creating pysanky and krashanky began in Ukraine in the distant past.  In the 1880s, while excavating the Kryvushans'ky burial mounds (mohyly), the archeologist Uvarov discovered several ceramic eggs (from the Kyivan Rus’ period).  Similar eggs were found in 1908 by Khvoyko during excavations in Poltavshchyna.  Additionally, scholars have compared the ornaments on pottery from archeological digs to the earliest ornaments of pysanky, and concluded that pysanky have been created in Ukraine since prechristian times.

The oldest designs and motifs on pysanky are still in use to this day.  They are predominantly geometric: triangles, spirals, circles, sorokoklyny ("40 wedges"), 40 branches, etc.  All of these are symbols of various rituals or sacred numbers.  Once, most likely, all of this was tied to various attributes of the pagan gods.  In Christian times these symbols took on different meanings and now, for instance, the number forty refers to the 40 days of Lent or to the existence of the 40 holy martyrs.

In our time, in the ornamentation of pysanky we seek not only historical meaning, but artistic value. Today, besides traditional motifs, we find also new, artistic, precise motifs.

To better understand and learn these motifs, many attempts have been made in the past to classify them. One of these classification systems belongs to Prof. M. F. Sumtsovy, who divided the ornaments/motifs of pysanky into geometric, plant (phytomorphic), zoological (zoomorphic), anthropological (anthropomorphic) and those referring to everyday life ("pobutovi").

Another investigator/researcher, K. V. Bol'sunovs'kyy, proposed accepting as a basis for classification of pysanky those names given by the "pysancharky" themselves, e.g. "herbal one" "doves" "little comb" "cross" "bezkonechnyk (never-ending line)".

Yet others divide the motifs of pysanky into these groups:

  1. a) historical, those that have ties to ancient motifs/designs

  2. b) original/new

  3. c) chance/random motifs, that bear witness to the rich fantasy and high artistic skills/talents of our people

This last classification, it seems, is quite handy for learning pysanky, and and is now taken advantage of  most widely.

As to the actual custom of writing pysanky, sadly, in central Ukraine, it is falling away.  The reasons for this are many, but the main one is the economic problems of Ukrainian villagers in the last thirty years1.  Also contributing to this decline was the recent war2, because the  nicest examples of pysanky, which had been preserved in museums, were destroyed. For example, in a Kyiv museum with a collection of over seven thousand pysanky, not a single one was preserved!

It's hard to believe that, in the conditions of kolhosp (collectivized) village life, this aspect of folk art will make a resurgence.

In Western Ukraine, and most prominently in the Hutsul regions, the art of making pysanky is still cherished and nurtured, and, God willing, may it be preserved there as long as possible3.

The methods of preparing pysanky, although fairly simple and straightforward, nevertheless requires exceptional skill, because drawing on the convex surface of an egg is considerably more difficult than doing so on a flat piece of canvas or paper.

The instrument used to prepare pysanky is a "kistochka" – this is a stick with a sheet metal4 tube at its end. On a raw egg designs are drawn with molten wax; those areas are covered which need to remain undyed (i.e. white): outlines, dots and belts.  The egg is initially dyed in light colors, for example, in yellow. The egg is then removed from the dye and allowed to dry. When it is dry, wax is applied with the kistochka to those areas that are to remain yellow.  Next the egg is dyed in another, this time darker, color. And this is repeated until that time that the pysanky has taken on the appearance that the pysankarka wants to give it.

When the application of the design is complete, pysanky are placed in and earthenware bowl, and that bowl is placed into a warm oven (35-40°C).  When the wax has melted and flowed off of the pysanka, it is ready.

The Hutsuls make pysanky in a  very skillful manner.  Prof. D. Hornyatkevych tells how he chanced to observe an older woman in the Hutsul region make thirty-six pysanky in the course of one day, while carrying on with her daily chores: keeping the stove burning, cooking the food, feeding the livestock, milking the cows, and entertaining a small child. None of this interfered with her reproducing traditional designs with the highest artistic ability.

In Lemkivshchyna pysanky are written with the head of a pin, the sharp end of which has been inserted into a stick.  They write "kryvul'ky" (tear shaped drops) and round dots with molten wax, which is kept boiling in a metal box on an iron (hot) plate or over an open fire on a tripod. After the marks have been applied, the egg is put into dye.  The dyes are made from onion skins, oak bark, and red, green and blue paper. As Yulian Tarnovych has written, Lemkivsky pysanky are not rich in fancy ornamentation; they are straightforward, but lovely. Bands of these teardrops, with the thin end pointing inwards, create circles; large ones symbolize the sun, and small ones–stars. Other designs include flowers, crosses, spots and merezhka-like patterns. These pysanky are ordinarily one or two colored, as Lemky do not use many different dyes when making their pysanky. 

The pysanka tradition lives on in Zakarpattya as well.  As to their artistic quality, these pysanky, or so it seems to us, "give way" before those of Hutsulshchyna, and approach those of the Lemky.


  1. 1. TN: This book was originally published in 1958, so the author is referring to 1930s-1950s.  This was the period of the Great Terror, the Holodomor (famine-genocide), collectivization of the farms and destruction of the peasant middle class by the Soviet authorities, in central and eastern Ukraine. It is estimated that between 3 and 10 million Ukrainians perished during this period (not including war casualties, which numbered another 10 million or so between 1939 and 1945).

  2. 2.TN: WWII  Ukraine was one of the main battlefields of the war.  Not only did the Ukrainian population suffer app. 10 million casualties (civilian and military), but there was massive destruction of the infrastructure.  Stalin's "scorched earth campaign" destroyed everything in its path during the initial Russian retreat (to avoid resources falling into the hands of the Nazis).  Further fighting caused during the Russian drive to retake Ukraine.

  3. 3.Nice examples of pysanky from the Sokal' region (L'viv oblast) were taken out of the country by Prof. D. Hornyatkevych; he presented them at a meeting of UVAN in Augsburg (Germany) January 26th, 1946. The ornament of these pysanky is largely floral, and the execution truly artistic.

  4. 4.TN: Voropay uses the term «бляха» here, which refers to metal plates or sheets of tin or tin-plated metal. Pysachky are usually made using rolled pieces of sheet brass or copper nowadays, but any type of metal could have been used.

(NB: all footnotes from original text except where noted “TN” – translator’s note)

Text © 2008 by Luba Petrusha.  Be advised that the translation on this page and the English text is my work.  It has been put here to share; if you wish to print it out for personal use, or for teaching purposes, please feel free to do so.  If you wish to reproduce it on your website, or in another publication, please ask first. You can contact me via the e-mail link below.

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