Eggs: Some Folkways & Traditions

“Love and eggs are best when they are fresh.” – Russian proverb

[excerpted from a work in progress]

Because of their ancient symbolic reference to renewal and regeneration, eggs have found a place in the spring rites and Easter celebrations of many diverse cultures. Some of these practices eventually became secular because of their widespread religious associations, while some were inspired by if not blatantly appropriated from earlier pagan and folk practices of the region.

 Decorating eggs, for example, is something we now enjoy in the course of family fun, and when we consider the symbols that are waxed or dyed onto the eggshell, we realize we are participating in an act that is beyond memory and into the realm of folk magic.

Coloring and decorating the shells are not the only folk tradition eggs have been subjected to. People from myriad cultures have hidden or cached eggs, whether to return and find as part of a game or as a magical object, and they placed them in myriad locations, such as under animal barns to increase the flock; beneath the marriage bed to promote fertility; in gardens and fields for abundant crops; and around the home grounds as a symbolic reminder of renewal and self-reflection.

Red-dyed eggs

We’re all very fond of the color called “robin’s egg blue”, and it is a much welcomed sign of spring, along with the robin itself. However, red-dyed eggs have an historical tradition in Greece, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Celtic Britain, China, and elsewhere, and not only during spring or Easter.  However, red remains the most common color for dyeing Easter eggs among many Orthodox Christians.

Red-colored eggs are handed out at funerals and births in many Asian countries. In China, “Red Eggs” were once given away by the bride at her wedding ceremony to share good fortune and prosperity. Eggs are also given to loved ones when celebrating new babies. These red eggs play a pivotal role in a legend about two generals, one scheming to take territory away from the other, and here is the story.

The schemer invited his rival out for a visit and while talking, offered his daughter to be the rival’s bride (while secretly planning to kidnap and hold the rival ransom for his land). The rival’s advisor saw through the ruse and sent “red happiness eggs” to the schemer’s daughter as a wedding gift, thus forcing the schemer to save face in public and accept the gift, as well as a new son-in-law. Thus, in China, red-dyed eggs (or nowadays red-packaged “happiness candies”) are given away at weddings for happiness to all.

Psanky and Krashenky – Decorated Eggs from Ukraine

If eggs are to be considered powerful symbols of rebirth and regeneration, then, the ornately decorated psanky are unsurpassed fertility and protection amulets. The patient, meticulous waxing, scribing and dyeing of the egg’s shell with traditional Slavic patterns and designs must be considered an artistic and active meditation on all that is hoped for in the coming season. Psanky were often buried in the first and last furrow of a wheat field to assure a productive harvest. If the egg was painted with a green or blue meander design (like waves of water) it was placed in the home – perhaps near the hearth? – as protection against fire. If a woman was wishing to become pregnant she might be given an egg – by her best friend or perhaps even a midwife – decorated with the image of a hen. To this day, psanky are still considered to be amulets of fertility and prosperity as well as protection, and great pride is taken in making these beautiful emblems of Slavic traditional art.  

Psanky are decorated raw eggs of any and all colors, (the word origin “pysaty” means “to write”), while a cooked and red-dyed Krashanka (from “krasha” or “to color”) is typically eaten in ritual on Easter Sunday. Although the Druids were also believed to have dyed eggs red to honor the sun, the dying and subsequent decorating of eggs is a distinctly Eastern European traditional art form. While many designs are drawn or painted on the eggs, one Slavic motif that is charmingly traditional is of an antlered deer nibbling at the roots of an evergreen tree, juxtaposing the “evergreen” symbolism of the tree and the male principle of the stag with the “fertility” symbol of the egg itself.

Krashanky (plural) are also used in folk magic practices. Placing one under a beehive increased honey production and induced the bees to stay close to home. As a fertility charm, an egg was rolled around in an immature oat field.  A krashanka woven into a wheat “dollie” or tassled amulet was hung above the doorway of a newly built home to appease the spirits of place that may have been disturbed because of the building activity.

Slavic folk magic often combined both pagan tradition and Christian custom (some of which were borrowed from pagan folkways to begin with). For instance, on Eostre’s Day, these red-dyed krashanky were tossed into a river to eventually reach the banks of a far-away land, announcing the season of rebirth. This distant land is inhabited by spirits called Blazhenni or “the Kindly Ones”, and when these Slavic countries became Christianized, the spirits were transmuted into the spirits of unbaptized children. Thus the egg tossing became a sort of prayer for a child who had died. In a similar custom, a krashanka was placed on the new grave of a loved one, to insure the rebirth of the beloved family member or friend.

These traditions help maintain the balance of nature, including the forces of death and decay as well as birth and regeneration, as one concept does not have meaning without the other. To illustrate, one Slavic myth tells the tale about the end of time which will come about because of a monster devouring the world. Except that this monster is held captive by magical chains which are strengthened by the number of Psanky made at Eastertime.

Modern pagans emulating Slavic tradition can make a simple doll or poppet called Death, and then banish or “kill” it symbolically by throwing it into a river, which itself is a symbol of the cyclic nature of Life. After the Death-banishing ceremony, red-dyed eggs can be passed around to all ritual participants and observers and then eaten, to further equate the color red with life force and energy. 

Cascarones, a Mexican-American egg tradition

Special Fiesta eggs made by Mexican Americans, particularly in Texas, are called cascarones, which means “eggshell” in Spanish. The theoretical history of these Confetti Eggs in North America dates to the 1860’s when Carlota (Charlotte of Belgium), married to the “emperor of Mexico” Maximillian, brought perfumed, decorated eggs from Italy to her new home in Mexico, and they apparently caught on. In her article “Cascarón – a symbol of ritual and renewal,” Elaine Ayala says this about cascarones: “Other cultures might have found other uses for the fragile shells, but I’d like to think Mexican American culture has contributed significantly to their popularization.”

These days, cascarones are raw eggs which are emptied of their contents (and left to dry on the inside), then carefully filled with stuff such as herbs, confetti or cornmeal. After decorating the eggs on the outside, they are saved until Easter Sunday, when, in a playful gesture, the egg is cracked on the head of a friend or loved one, onto whom the contents spill well-wishes and blessings. This magical gesture is intended to remind one of the blessings of the Spring Equinox.

Each family often has its own tradition, but most are culturally connected to Catholic symbolism, such as the eggshell being representative of the tomb of Jesus. Coloring the eggs, once they are filled with surprises, and papier-mâché’d back together with tissue paper, became yet another character-building exercise, especially for excitable children looking forward to Easter festivities; after all, the preceding forty days of Lent has had the adults somewhat solemn, with fasting and praying, considering their walk in life, and commemorating the forty days that Christ wandered in the desert of temptation before beginning his ministry.

To mix metaphors, San Antonio, Texas is the mecca of cascarones. One of the oldest grocery markets there started selling the filled and decorated eggs many decades ago, and today they sell kits for people to make them at home, just like a dip-n-dye Easter egg kit. Currently, Fiesta Days in San Antonio are celebrated city-wide, with suggestions to leave a tip for the cleaning crew after office parties because of all the confetti.

The Egg and the House Icon

Some Easter traditions include the red-dyed egg as well, and this egg was often used as an amulet or charm, or in some sort of folk-healing ritual. For instance, at Eastertime in Bulgaria, little children, young brides, and girls hoping to be brides had their cheeks rubbed with the first red-dyed egg, bringing them health, beauty, and protection from outside evils. This same first red egg (it appears important to use the first-dyed egg) could also be set in a place of honor beneath the family’s house icon in these Eastern Orthodox households, in Bulgaria as well as Greece. The tradition of religious icons goes back to at least the 3rd century CE, the early days of Christianity.  Red-dyed eggs were also left at church icons.

Mary Magdalene and Red Eggs

Why do red eggs feature in Christian symbolism? The color is supposed represent the blood of the crucified Jesus, while the egg is symbolic of the cave in which he was laid to rest. Another legend concerns Jesus’ companion Mary Magdalene and a basket of eggs. Mary of Magdalene took a basket of eggs to her beloved’s tomb to share and eat with other mourners, and when she saw that he had risen and was speaking to directly her, the eggs turned red with the resurrection. Another version of the story tells how the Magdalene went to Pontius Pilate to tell him that “Christ has risen” and he said to her that Christ had no more risen “than that egg is red” which of course the eggs in the nearby basket became red.  

Nowruz, the Persian New Year

The thirteen-day observance of Spring called Nowruz, Norouz, or Norooz, meaning “new” and “day” or “light”, is symbolic as well as celebratory. Young and old alike look forward to this time. Seven traditional foods are served from the haftseen, or Seven S’s feast table, each food representing a specific quality or characteristic. These seven foods all begin with the letter “s” (in Persian or Farsi), including the seeb or apple to represent beauty; seer or garlic for good health; vinegar or serkeh for patience; and sprouts, sabzeh, representing rebirth. Similar to a personal altar, the modern-day haftseen might also feature books of poetry, the holy Quran, sweets and fruits, perhaps a bowl of goldfish (to represent life), and specially painted eggs, which are served to represent the fertility of the season. This tradition is believed to have originated as early as 500 BCE, amongst people following the Zoroastrian religion of Mesopotamia. Later, when Christianity was becoming a religion as well, this egg tradition was borrowed and expanded upon. Some believe that the Norwuz table influenced the Seder plate of symbolic foods for the Jewish Passover, but there is a great deal of cloudiness concerning which came first, and this book does not intend to weigh in one way or another. Norwuz is recognized and celebrated in many countries including Iran, Turkey, India and Afghanistan. In recognition of cultural tradition, the Los Angeles Museum of Art sponsors a Persian costume parade each year, with festivities which include two days of films, displays, and of course the haftseen table.

Folk traditions mingle with Church traditions

Pagan origins inspired many Easter traditions. Says Kenneth Johnson in Slavic Sorcery, some of these traditions include rolling eggs on the ground “to effect a magical transfer of the creative power of the egg to the earth”. Before all the Easter festivities, Russian grandmothers would take a new egg, which was served to her by a young child, slice it open, then stir and sip the fresh yolk, passing to the child to sip, and then, finally, to the rest of the table, each partaking of “the sunshine of life” (Luard, Sacred Food, p. 260).

One endearing folk tale from Germany tells about a small rabbit that wanted to show the Goddess Eostre how much she meant to him, so he placed decorated eggs here, there, and everywhere, all in honor of Her; this rabbit evolved into the Easter Bunny.

Walpurgis Night, a German/Dutch tradition, commemorates the 8th century Benedictine Saint Walpurga, who was canonized on May 1st, or May Day. She is associated with the study of medicine and education, as well as other subjects, and her tomb is said to produce an oil which has holy, healing powers; the sisters of her order give this oil to pilgrims visiting her tomb. The Swedish version of Walpurgisnacht is a bit more bucolic. A very old custom still practiced on Valborgsmässoafton has young people taking to the woods at twilight to build bonfires and gather boughs and branches, with which they return to decorate homes in the village and “bring in the May”. The housewife would reward their singing, dancing and decoration with eggs for eating; sometimes there would also be pickled herring. These celebrations are very reminiscent of much earlier, pre-Christian May Eve fertility rites, not to mention some modern-day hardy partying, which has apparently become a serious issue now in Sweden.

The Slavic version of Pentecost, called Rusalii, was a week-long festival with a ritual meal that comprised of several components which include wheat flour, milk, eggs, and libations of beer and wine. Pagan Slavs were known to worship woodland beings and ancestral spirits, and sometimes the line between otherworldly beings and the gods were somewhat blurred. A birch tree decorated with the robes and ribbons of a woman became a focal point for song, dance and friendship vows. Girls dressed as priests accompanied the Rusalka or doll effigy to the river, where it was blessed with smoke from a censer made out of an eggshell. The effigy was released into the river after much ado, while the remaining Rusalki (water and tree nymphs) were said to take to the trees for the remaining summer months.

Modern pagans celebrating spring rites may want to consider blessing an Easter Basket as a ritual to honor new life, recalling the shape of the basket – a vessel – as the Goddess’s womb, with the sleeping God of summer returning from the tomb of winter.

Weddings & Funerals

Traditional Hungarian wedding festivities always include plenty of music. In addition, and essential for properly celebrating the happy couple, there are also plenty of dyed, hard-cooked eggs. Everyone participates in the dancing and eating.

The Mexican celebration called Dia de los Muertos or “Day of the Dead” is not the only joyous festival honoring the dearly departed. The Russian Orthodox Church commemorates a spring festival to honor the dead called the Radonitsa – Радоница – or “joyful”. During this time, the mother or housewife prepares food for the living as well as for the dead. Prayers are said in front of family and saintly icons. Men roll eggs in the churchyard while women sing dirges specific to this festival. The family enjoys a picnic to which the ancestors are invited. People participating in celebrations such as these have a healthy relationship with death, because they can still feel close to their loved ones and celebrate their lives without endless mourning.

As observed by the Jewish faith, the Meal of Condolence or Consolation, or Seudat Havra’ah, is prepared for mourners by their neighbors, and is served after the interment of the loved one. This meal includes a ritual hand-washing and features round foods, such as bagels which represent the staff of life; lentils, which, in addition to also being round, were the first dish served after the the funeral of Abraham; and hard-boiled eggs (served peeled), which are sometimes dipped in ash, sometimes cooked in other ways, depending on the location or community where the observance takes place. The significance of the egg is partly due to the belief that, as the egg hardens the longer it is cooked, so must an individual harden to the challenges that death and dying can bring; in addition, the egg inside the shell reminds mourners to remain quietly respectful and refrain from boisterous activity during this time. However, the egg also symbolizes the hope for new life, so the mourning does not have to be the final ending.

Eggs are buried near cemeteries for their renewal symbolism in widely diverse locations from west-central Africa to the Appalachian Mountains.

Charms & Spells

Coloring eggs for Easter/Ostara gives us time to think about plans and projects for the upcoming season. When we recognize eggs as a source of life and a symbol of the Great Goddess, decorating them helps us honor this season of bunnies and eggs and new beginnings.

In addition to eating eggs for food, people often ate them to magically encourage fertility. In many Slavic cultures, the fertility symbolism of eggs was also literally applied to garden implements such as shovels and rakes.

There is a Slavic custom from the 19th century using an egg to capture illness, as described in Slavic Sorcery by Kenneth Johnson. The method is to gesture and pray over the person, and to speak directly to the illness, calling on the Lord, The Mother of God, Mother Earth, and all saints. “At this auspicious time, I do not come to give, but to remove… I do not remove the ailment myself. Most holy Mother of god and all the saints come to my assistance.” (p.55)  An egg is run (rubbed, stroked) over the ill person’s body while repeating the prayer three times. After completing certain other gestures and words, the egg (which has now captured the illness) is broken open into a glass of water. Although Johnson does not tell us what to do with the egg and water at this point, my best guess would be to pour it into running water – a stream or river, or even down the drain, and by no means should anyone drink this water.

In her delightfully poetic missal called The Crone’s Book of Charms & Spells, author Valerie Worth shares “A Charm to Break Some Troublesome Habit”. This is what you do: Make a small hole at each end of a white egg and blow out the contents. Seal up one hole with soft beeswax, carefully fill the empty egg with red wine, and then seal up the second hole. Using red ink, write the name of the “plaguing compulsion” you wish to be rid of on the egg. Take the filled egg to a secret place where there are many rocks. Say the following charm:

            Halls of blood where life has fled

            Walls of bone that close me round

            I break thy reign, thy yoke I shed

            I cast thy powers to the ground

Next, throw the egg against the rocks so that it shatters, then pick up the broken pieces of egg shell. Dry them out at home then grind them to a powder; and then whenever you feel compelled to go back to your habit, place a tiny pinch of this powder on your tongue and wait for the feeling to pass.

There is an “Old Hungarian Health Spell” shared by Zsuzsanna Budapest, in her feminist witchcraft book, The Holy Book of Women’s Mysteries. It is very similar to other traditions which employ eggs. The person in need of healing is to lie naked in the moonlight (if possible). A basket of thirteen eggs are the tools used. The practitioner performing the spell is to slowly rub the eggs, one at a time, on the person’s body, first one egg, then the next, and so on, placing the “used” eggs into a second basket. Then the goddesses Diana, Aradia and Isis are invoked, that all ill is absorbed into the eggs. Next, water is blessed, salt added, the salt water is blessed again, then asperged all around the person (and especially into the corners of the room if you cannot be outside), with a spoken affirmation for glowing health. The eggs are disposed of in a body of water or buried in the earth, but never to be eaten unless it is your intention to take on the illness!

In her book Exploring Spellcraft, author Gerina Dunwich provides the reader with an inspired Easter Fertility Spell. She advises the seeker to light of a green-colored candle, then take a cooked, green-dyed egg and write their name and astrological symbols on said egg (with green ink perhaps?), by the light of the candle. Next, charm the egg with the following words:

I enchant this egg, symbol of fertility,

Sacred to the goddess Eostre,

To be a charm to work for me.

With fertility my body it shall bless,

By the powers of the Earth,

The seas, the winds,

And the flames of fire.

So mote it be.

Put the enchanted egg under your pillow then go to sleep. The next day at earliest sunrise, bury the egg in the earth, pat the soil over it firmly and decidedly, then turn and walk away.

Here is an Ostara “Spell for Incubating your Secret Longing” which comes from Cait Johnson in her more-than-a-cooking book Witch in the Kitchen. This spell is performed when it’s time to take care of your own personal needs or heart’s desire. In the time it takes to hatch an egg, the Universe will respond. Here are the tools you will need: a raw egg; pen and paper; a small sacred object, charm or milagro; glue and tissue paper. Hold the egg in the cradle of your hands and feel the possibilities within. Yearn for your heart’s desire, really feel it, name it out loud. Then, write it out on the piece of paper, fold it up, and breathe your longing into it. Next, crack the egg in two, set aside the contents (to cook and eat after the spell), and place the paper you’ve written on inside the shell along with your small symbolic object. Carefully glue the shell back together, using the tissue paper to help wrap it up, sort of like papier-mâché. Put the egg in a safe place, giving time for the spell to work. Visit your egg now and then, holding it and knowing your dreams will soon be hatched.

Other symbolic gestures of egg magick include:

  • Burying one egg at each of the four directions of your yard – north, east, south, west – to insure a full pantry of food over the winter
    • Burying a fresh egg under the threshold of a home to protect the dwellers from evil (from an old German custom)
    • Sweeping a hard-boiled egg from outside to inside your house to invite abundance and fertility inside
    • Burying an egg in the very center of your garden area as a blessing and offering to Mother/Earth/Goddess
    • Using brown eggshells for magical works involving animals, including protection, healing, pregnancy and birth
    • Eating eggs for grounding and protection, and to encourage fertility
    • Dying eggs using natural botanicals such as red cabbage or onion skins, and using them in Spring Rites ceremonies, or simply to give to others for well-wishing

Oomancy – Using Eggs for Divination

Whether passed down from someone’s great aunt and performed in a graveyard at midnight, or brought back from the misty mountains half-way around the world, eggs have been used as objects of divination, fortune-telling, Oomancy for as long as the connection between eggs and birds have been realized.

One method used in China and other countries was to dye or paint an egg, boil it, and then read the resultant cracks as symbols of meaning. (Bones and intestines were also used as portents of the future.)

The egg white is often used for a divination style called “scrying” which is basically using unfocused sight to look for symbols on or in a given medium… in this case, an egg white. One style called Nordic Egg Divination instructs the scryr to pierce an egg at one end and place the white in a glass of water (the instructions do not say what to do with the shell or yolk). The glass is left to sit overnight, and then the next day the reader looks at the patterns formed by the white and interprets them according to their or their client’s personal symbolic references. This method is used similarly in bowls of water instead of a glass; or sometimes adding salt to the glass of water; or the egg may be rubbed on the person first (to determine what is ailing them) and then the white is scryed.

Superstitions

Egg shells and the breaking of them is the subject of many superstitions, in particular on account of witches using the coracle-shaped shell for a tiny boat after changing size. Sailors once called eggs by the name “roundabouts” because just saying the word “egg” was very bad luck on a ship. In a similar vein, Appalachian folklore instructs us to take a tiny pullet’s egg (from a very young hen who is just beginning to lay), and toss it up the roof to placate any witches that might be hanging around. Another superstition about breaking eggshells is that doing so keeps a witch from engraving the name of the person who ate the egg on it, thus possessing the means to practice nefarious magic on said person.

If a hen laid an egg on a Church holy day, it possesses the ability to alleviate illness; if it were laid on Good Friday – that is, the Friday before Easter Sunday – it had the power to put out fires if thrown into one. You could also create some real family memories if you were to shoot the Devil with an egg laid on Christmas, killing him dead.

In a story from Hungary, there is a supernatural being called a Lidérc (pronounced LEED-rts), which is also called a Miracle Chicken, because it is hatched from the first egg of a little black hen. Part of this chicken magic tells us that this egg – in order to produce a Lidérc – must be placed under a person’s arm for warmth in order to hatch. This means that someone would have to brood over what amounts to an incubus or succubus coming to maturity in order to suck the lifeblood out of someone, which would make the broody one quite dastardly. But the Lidérc can be dissuaded from its reason for living by assigning it an impossible mission, such as carrying water in a sieve. The Hungarian word for nightmare, lidércnyomás, means “lidérc-pressure”, because the Lidérc has the creepy custom of sitting on their victim while draining them of their lifeblood.

The eggs of other birds also play a part in superstitions. For instance, if you wish to perform a magical intervention of sorts, you could always scramble up some owl’s eggs and feed them to that special someone who drinks too much for their own good. And after your friend has finally finished their shouting and uproar, you can treat their sore throat with the soil found beneath the egg of a mockingbird; however, I have not been able to discover the procedure for how to perform this part of the spell.

But it’s easy to see why it’s bad luck to break a robin’s egg, lest something of your own becomes broken.

Fun & Games

There is curious custom called “egg-tapping”, which is also known as egg-knocking, egg boxing, egg jarping or egg shackling… or simply the Egg Fight. The practice appears in England, Greece, Croatia, Netherlands, India, Poland, and also in Jewish culture. Different countries may have regional names for the game, but the rule of play is pretty much the same all over. Take your hard-boiled Easter or Seder egg, grab a partner who also has an egg, and then tap, tap, tap the other person’s egg until it breaks – without breaking your own egg. Some rules say to use the pointed end of the egg when tapping. This game was played as far back as the 14th century in Zagreb in present-day Croatia and also in 15th century Poland. Even US colonials were busy tapping eggs on Easter, and street-cries and tapping-techniques were eventually covered in the editorial section of the Baltimore Evening Sun during the 1950’s. There is actually a world egg-jarping championship that takes place in County Durham, England on a local cricket field. In some places this game takes on a serious competitive quality, since cheaters have been known to fill their egg with cement or other hard fillings; however, some contests specify that the champion eat their egg to prove it is real. Instead of cheating, some people choose a specific breed of chicken for their harder shells, or feed the hens calcium-rich foods ahead of time to make the shells harder through diet. C’mon people, it’s just a game!

© Doreen Shababy