Spring is that joyful time of the year, when nature awakens and brings the promise of warmer and longer sunny days to come. The smell of blooming flowers, such as lilac, is in the air. In the Bulgarian folklore, spring traditions have an important role and this season is quite rich in rituals that are followed, all related to the preparation of the new agricultural year. This year, not long after the Spring Equinox, Easter follows in April. In Orthodox Christianity, it is the most important celebration, and the decoration of eggs is a key part of it. Similarly to other countries, in Bulgaria, it is a much loved tradition. The decorated, coloured eggs can be seen in the traditions of many nations and in many cultures and dates back to pre-Christian times.
The egg and its symbolism
As the egg is a universal symbol of renewal, rebirth, and life, and its importance is reflected in the Bulgarian folklore as well, for example in old children songs typical to be performed in spring time. The sun is said to be ‘Divine egg’ (‘Sun, Sun, Divine egg, the human is a chicken hatched by you in the world to be seen’). Another text suggests that time is a hen and the stars are hatched by her eggs. What is also interesting is that the earth is also seen as an egg: a red, colourful egg. On the other hand, according to the Slavic folklore, the sun is a ‘celestial wheel, golden wheel, a ring, a crown, egg, god’s eye’.
The idea that the egg is a solar symbol is present in our folklore and it is seen as a symbol of spring, and the awakening of nature. Therefore, it occupies an important role in the traditional beliefs for its magical, healing, and banishing qualities. The egg could be used to cast spells, to check if a person has caught the ‘evil eye’ or if a person has been jinxed. That is the reason why the Easter egg is believed to have the greatest healing properties, and more precisely, the red painted egg. It can be used to heal, protect, banish as a symbol of life, health, prosperity and abundance. The red Easter egg can be used only to help and bless, and with it harm cannot be caused, as in the folklore the egg is widely known to have magical qualities that can be used to both bless and curse. Therefore with the red egg a curse can be destroyed.
Preparation and decoration of the eggs
The most prominent days in the Easter cycle of celebrations observed are Lasarus Saturday (Lazaruvane celebration), Palm Sunday (when willow branches are blessed and made in wreaths and brought to the homes for prosperity and health) and Easter itself. The week between Palm Sunday and Easter, also known as Easter Week or Holy Week, is the time when the preparation for Easter celebration happens. Traditionally, the Thursday of that week is known as Great Thursday, and on this day (nowadays Saturday as well) is the time when eggs are decorated.
Thursday is not a good day to collect eggs, except for Great Thursday, they are gathered before sunrise ‘put away, counted, washed, painted and decorated first’ . The egg that was brooded first is the one that has the greatest magical qualities. In the past, the eggs were painted by the eldest woman of the house, while nowadays this is not widely observed.
Something that is still followed, as the tradition requires, is that the first painted egg should always be red and the cheeks of children, maidens and brides-to-be are often coloured with it – to keep them healthy, protected from evil. The red egg is a symbol of magic, healing and protection. Nowadays, more commonly, the first painted egg is left by the icon of Virgin Mary at home to bring prosperity and health in the house. As the red colour is the primary and most important one, it is believed that a red egg is given to a loved one. It is a common tradition to exchange eggs and give some to family, friends, and neighbours.
Once the red eggs were put in a sieve, on a new cloth, for the sun to see them and to smile; Also more common in the past was for the egg to be buried in the field for protection against hail. The relation between the magical qualities of the Easter egg to ensure fertility and blessing of the fields is reflected in the belief that a witch can hatch a magical bird (chicken) – if she takes a two-yolk egg and keeps it under her pit a two-headed bird will be hatched, that can steal the fertility from other fields and lands and bring it to its owner.
Today, a much wider practice is for the eggs to be bought and then hardboiled after which the painting or decorating follows. In the past the water used to mix the paints was ‘silent’ (this means that maidens collected it in silence from three different springs). Today tap water is used mixed with the water in which the eggs were boiled, and vinegar is added to keep the colours more vibrant.
What are the main techniques used to decorate eggs?
The name used for the decorated Easter egg in Czech language is kraslice and the root of the word is related to both decorating and red. In Bulgarian language, the decorated eggs are called pisani eggs – which comes from the verb to write – or they are known as perashki. Perashki are meant to be given to dear people unlike the other eggs which are later eaten. In Ukrainian the decorated eggs are called Pysanka, again having the same relation to the verb to write. These words describe the technique that uses warmed wax (batik). While, for example, ‘krashanky’ (in Ukrainian) is used referring to eggs dyed in a single colour. There are many different names used to refer to certain style of decoration, due to the great variety of techniques used in the different countries and regions.
In Bulgaria they can be grouped in two categories, in both of which wax is used. A ‘pen’ (wooden stick with metal edge) is used together with wax and a candle to warm it. In the first case, the egg is not dyed in any paint. For the purpose, white eggs are used. The wax was in the past mixed with tar, while now it is mixed with oil paint. The role of the black is similar to that used in embroidery – to create a contour. Then, the created shapes inside are filled in with different colours. A demonstration of the technique can be seen here.
In the past, of course, to create the colouring paste dyes used to colour the yarn were used together with an egg yolk to create the egg tempera. The shapes are coloured with either a match stick or wooden small stick. This type of egg decoration is regional and it can still be seen to be used even today. The second technique includes wax again, but the eggs are also coloured with dye. The symbol is applied with wax on the egg, then the eggs are dyed, and the places on which the wax is applied remain non-coloured, which makes the symbols visible. Wool tassels are added to the decorated egg in some regions. Another technique that is known of to have been used by monks, included the creation of ornaments on the egg through carving with a knife.
Aside from red as the primary colour, yellow, orange, red, green and blue are also used. In the past, instead of using synthetic dyes, natural ones were used, for example, for red – marjoram, the peeled skin of red onions, quince leaves; for yellow – cornflower or walnut dry leaves, apple skins; linden leaves for beige; nettle for green, orange etc.
What are some typical elements used to decorate the eggs?
The egg is decorated symmetrically, the ornaments follow the shape of the egg and the space is divided in fours, eights, etc., in which the symbols are placed. The themes are usually related to rebirth, resurrection. Typical symbols are the cross, sun, stars, and spirals. These symbols have protective functions and aim to bless and bring fruitfulness. The ornaments and figures on the decorated egg, are sometimes anthropomorphic. Other elements include the butterfly – as a symbol of the soul of the dead – and it obtains certain level of ambivalence, as it symbolizes the underworld and rebirth at the same time. Floral motives are also popular, as are three/four sectioned swastikas and cockerel as solar symbols. Floral and leafy crosses, complex designs, the tree of life – all this in spirit of the renewal of nature.
Unlike the decorated eggs in other parts of Europe, for example the Czech Republic, Hungary etc, the Bulgarian style is more graphic and not so multi-colored. Among the most loved symbols used by Bulgarians is the dot, as Rakshieva (from the Institute of Ethnography, Sofia) suggests. The decoration of the egg can take between an hour or even days to make one, depending on the intricacy of the figures.
It is important to note that today, the more widespread technique used by the population is to dye the eggs in different colours, occasionally to apply stickers on them and sometimes to use wax and cotton pads to mix the colours While the traditional techniques are still preserved in Bulgaria, in some regions more than in others, the Ethnographic museum in Sofia holds a workshop every year where the techniques are demonstrated and one can sign up and participate. The History museum of Velingrad holds the biggest collection of Easter decorated eggs, displaying not only different styles of decoration from Bulgaria but also from other countries in East and Central Europe.
The egg decoration and the rituals typical for this transitional time of the year between winter and spring, suggest the folk’s belief and wish to ensure a blessed and fruitful year ahead, and various restrictions, fasting and practices look to appease and gain the protection from mythical, invisible creatures that have a say in human matters. The sun has returned, nature has renewed and with this in mind, the great magical qualities given to the decorated egg – all the attention and dedication on every detail in preparation for Easter – from the collection of eggs, through the water used to the decoration and final giving of the as gifts, illustrates and explains why the practice has had such great significance in the ritual calendar in the past. Still preserved today, although changed and in a certain sense simplified, yet its essence remains and the decoration of eggs is awaited with excitement by people every spring.
First published in ‘Pagan World’ – the digital magazine of PFI, 2018
Kolev N. Bulgarian Ethnography , 1987, p. 210
Georgieva I., 1993. Bulgarian mythology pp 30, 37, 70
Exhibition of Easter Eggs in the Ethnography Museum