It is time for regeneration. Nests of new life in satiny shells — white, blue, green, pink, yellow, speckled, mottled, striped and solid. No doubt our urge to paint chicken eggs for the late spring holidays is inspired by the wondrous works of art in every nest. And it’s also not surprising that humans have come to focus on eggs as the symbol of renewal. In stories across time and around the world, the egg betokens spring, creation, new life.
Yes, indeed, eggs are new life. But perhaps more importantly to our pragmatic ancestors, eggs show up in abundance at a time of year when there are few other ready sources of food. And eggs are wonderfully nutritious. One egg has only 75 calories; but it contains 7 grams of high-quality protein, 5 grams of fat, and only 1.6 grams of saturated fat, plus iron, vitamins, minerals, and carotenoids. Egg yolks are loaded with disease-fighting nutrients like lutein and zeaxanthin. These carotenoids help slow age-related macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness in older adults. Further, choline from eggs may enhance brain development and memory. And best of all, eggs fill you up. Eat a bowl of cereal with toast, and you’re peckish before lunch. Eat a two-egg breakfast burrito, and you don’t get hungry until the end of the day.
Natural Dye for Eggs
Following on last year’s success, I decided to give this another go. This time I wanted to keep the ‘recipes’ simple. I also wanted to get that elusive robin’s egg blue that is supposed to come from red cabbage.
This year, I cooked all the eggs before dying them because I decided I didn’t want to simmer most of the recipes. It’s too cold this year to open up the house, and the smell is rather too much. I put all the dyes that didn’t simmer in heat-proof bowls in the oven on the warm setting. Not enough heat to cook anything, but enough to keep the reactions going. Or that was the thought anyway.
For the onion peel and red cabbage dyes, I chopped and slightly crushed the plant materials. I put them in a pot with 3 tbs distilled white vinegar (for mordant) and enough water to cover the stuff (about 4 cups). I brought it to a low boil and immediately poured this warm mixture over 4 eggs in a heat-safe bowl and placed the bowl in the warm oven.
For the turmeric dye, I put 4 eggs in a heat-proof bowl. I added 2 cups of hot tap water, 1 tsp of turmeric and 3 tbs vinegar. This is the one that really doesn’t smell good, so I covered the bowl before putting it in the warm oven.
For the cranberry dye, I used about a half cup of leftover cranberry sauce (from the back of the freezer where one typically finds this sort of thing). I didn’t know if the acid in the sauce would be enough to fix the dye, so I added 3 tbs vinegar. I also added about 2 cups of water to make enough liquid to submerse 4 eggs in a small heat-proof bowl. This went in the warm oven.
For the beet and leek dyes, I chopped and slightly crushed the plant materials. I put them in a pot with 4 eggs and 3 tbs vinegar. I covered all this with water, brought the pot to a low boil, and then simmered the eggs.
I left it all to soak up as much dye as possible. About 6 hours. They turned out fantastic!
Here is a wonderful description of the beautiful art of pysanky: Pysanky: Ukrainian Easter Egg
And here’s a story based on Eric Kimmel’s popular children’s tale on the origins of pysanky and hares.
The Hares and the Eggs
The Goddess of the Dawn Light, Eostre, was walking the woods one fine spring morning. Shy woodland blooms nodded at her feet and birches unfurled their leaves at her passing. The sun warmed the earth and a soft southern breeze trailed in her wake. The air around her smelled of hyacinth and apple blossom and rain on dry earth. Wherever she smiled, petals opened like stars over pillowy tufts of dark moss.
Suddenly, the song of the wood thrush pierced the morning air. Eostre stopped to listen to the haunting melody. Its sadness drew a tear down her cheek and a sigh from her throat. The bird, seeing her there beneath him, flew down to her.
“Oh my mistress,” he cried. “Oh lady! Woe has befallen me,” he said.
“But what is it, little brother?” she replied.
“My darling, my wife, she was tossed from our home by the night wind. Her wings and back broken, her beautiful eyes darkened. Oh, that I could die with her!” he wailed.
“But, little brother, if you are gone, who will sing?” she asked.
“I can sing no more if my darling is gone,” he replied.
“Where is your wife?” the lady asked.
The thrush fluttered down to the base of an oak where the broken body of his wife lay upon a bed of moss. Eostre kneeled down and cradled the small creature in her palm. There was a faint heartbeat; the thrush’s wife was not yet gone.
Eostre smoothed the tangled feathers and breathed upon the bird. At this the thrush-wife awoke in agitation.
“Still, still, little sister,” cooed Eostre as she laid the small body back into the mosses. And the thrush-wife calmed, but her breath was harsh with pain.
“Oh, my lady!” exclaimed the thrush when he saw his wife awakened. “Oh, my darling!” he cried and took off into the morning air, singing in happiness. But his wife could not join him in flight. She watched as he sang out in triumph, knowing that his song would soon fail.
“I am still broken,” she whispered to Eostre. And the goddess nodded. The delicate wing bones would not mend even under her ministrations.
“Yes, little sister, you are still broken. I fear you will not fly again,” said the goddess.
“But how am I to get food? Or water? How am I to flee sharp tooth and claw?” The thrush-wife’s panicked agitation drew her husband’s notice, and he flew down to her side.
“What are we to do?” he asked. “For I can not leave her so.”
The goddess considered their plight.
“It is true I can not make your wings to fly again,” she began, “but your legs are still strong.”
“What of that!” spluttered the thrush. “She can hardly walk from hungry jaws, and our nest is far above us.”
Eostre frowned and the bird became silent again.
“Yes, she will not fly. But,” she continued, “I will do what I can to give you both a new life.”
So saying, she thought hard on the small creatures. Strong legs and earth-bound lives, she mused, fleet-footed, cloaked from predator eyes. And the two small brown bodies began to stretch. Skinny legs became muscled and strong. Wings folded in and grew padded paws. Feathers changed to fur and beaks changed to sharp teeth. Ears elongated and tails dwindled.
She did not change their color; they remained warm brown bodies with mottled white breasts. And she did not change their round eyes, so quick to see and to perceive. But when Eostre was done, two hares lay at her feet.
The wife looked down at her body and stretched her powerful legs and smiled. The husband leapt into the air and cried out in happiness. They both danced around the goddess, thanking her for the transformation. And then, as hares will in spring, they hastened off to make a new home in the briars.
Eostre smiled and walked on.
Some months later Eostre chanced to be back in that same wood, and she came to the place where she had turned thrushes into hares. And there they still lived.
They came out to her and they, all three, danced about in the light of the setting moon. But when the dawn was painting the leaves golden and pink, they tired of the dance and sat together.
Suddenly the husband shook himself and declared, “But my lady, we never thanked you properly for giving us the gift of new life. We would like to give you a gift in return.”
Eostre shook her head. “There is no need.”
“Of course,” said the wife in her gentle way. “But we should like to in any case.”
Eostre smiled and inclined her head. The husband bounded into the briars and then returned more slowly, carrying a smooth blue egg.
“But what is this?” exclaimed the goddess.
“It is our thank you gift,” replied the couple with some uncertainty.
“But where did you get it?” she asked.
“It is ours,” answered the wife. Seeing perplexity in Eostre’s eyes, the hare went on, “When you changed me, I was about to lay. The eggs inside did not change. This is one.”
The goddess blinked in surprise. “But then how do you bear children?”
“Oh, the same as any hare,” replied the husband with a chuckle.
“This is my last clutch, my lady,” said the wife. “Take it in memory of us.”
Eostre gazed down at the miraculous egg. Its satiny shell glowed like turquoise in the morning light. It was perfect, a bit of cool sky resting in her warm palm. A symbol of hope and renewal and new life. And Eostre had an idea.
She bent down and explained her wishes to the couple and they agreed readily.
“It should happen when the light of day overtakes the dark of night,” the goddess said, and they nodded in assent.
Suddenly, all about them, there were eggs of all the colors of the rainbow, all patterns, all sizes. All beautiful!
The hares set about gathering them together and carrying them back to the briar den. But the goddess picked up the blue egg. “This one I shall keep,” she said with a smile.
And from that day to this, a hare rouses himself on Eostre’s day and follows the goddess through the pale morning, leaving eggs, symbols of new life, for all who are clever enough to find them.
From the Book Cellar
For detailed instructions on egg decorating and the Ukrainian tradition of making pysanky, read Pauline Campanelli’s Ancient Ways (1991, Llewellyn Publications) and Wheel of the Year (1989, Llewellyn Publications).
Eric Kimmel’s book on the origins of pysanky is The Bird’s Gift: A Ukrainian Easter Story (1999, Holiday House). I’m not sure if this story existed before Kimmel wrote it. He seems to say this is a folk tale that existed before his books, but I can find no evidence for it in my wealth of Russian and Eastern European folklore. I took the themes from the story and made a more earth-based version.
Two wonderful picture books on eggs are An Egg Is Quiet (Dianna Hutts Aston, illustrated by Sylvia Long, 2006, Chronicle Books) and Rachenka’s Eggs (Patricia Polacco, 1988, Philomel Books). The first is the best gift you could buy for a budding naturalist and bird watcher. The second is a gorgeous tale of painted eggs and a magical goose, featuring Polacco’s wonderful Babushka, the grandmother we all want. (Or want to be…)
There are dozens of picture books on rabbits and hares. Beatrice Potter alone can fill a bookshelf, and one of my favorite children’s book characters is Rabbit from the Winnie the Pooh books. (He’s only topped by Eeyore…) But there are two unusually lovely books featuring bunnies that I recommend regularly. Ten Little Rabbits (Virginia Grossman, 1991, Chronicle Books) is, as one might expect, a counting book but set in the desert Southwest and featuring delicious art (again, the inimitable Sylvia Long). Then there is the classic tale of the Easter Bunny by DuBose Heyward, The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes (1939, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) illustrated by Marjorie Flack. Heyward is better known as the author of the novel, Porgy, which was adapted into George Gershwin’s operatic masterpiece, Porgy and Bess. The Country Bunny is surprisingly feminist and anti-racist, not merely for its time, but even compared to today’s contemporary children’s literature. The bunny earns her honored position not in spite of being a poor, brown, country mother of 21 bunnies but rather because of all the skills and qualities that come with her particular life. It’s a joy to read to kids!
©Elizabeth Anker 2022