Myth & Mind: The yolk and the sun

Mar 31, 17 • 5enses, Myth & MindNo Comments

Traditional and modern Ukrainian pysanky. Photo by Carl Fleischhauer, 1981, Library of Congress, public domain.

By Reva Sherrard

In the beginning, before the worlds had form, the sun thrust her right hand over the sky’s edge. She did not know what her place was to be, nor did the moon and stars know where to shine. Now that the stuff of time and place is differentiated and the wheels of the sun’s chariot turn the day and year on a set path, a monstrous wolf pursues her through the sky. All that is begun must also end, and one day this clockwork will run down. When the serpent round the earth’s middle sets the oceans loose and the dead rise to battle, the wolf will devour the sun and stop the turning of time.

Or we could say that one day our star’s fiery heart will run out of fuel; one day its expansion and contraction towards death will disrupt the complex balance that keeps its satellite the Earth in a settled orbit, and the cycles of movement that make time will gradually or violently come unpinned.

Whether our life can exist independently of our sun is an academic question. What is beyond questioning is that our life — human life, life on Earth — was and is given and ruled by the Sun. So of all her movements, her return from darkness at dawn has the greatest mythic significance as a cornerstone of human life and consciousness. The word for “east” in the Germanic languages means “towards the sunrise,” from a Proto-Indo-European root (*aus) signifying shining light. From that root come the respective Greek, Latin and Sanskrit words for and personified goddesses of dawn Eos, Aurora and Ushas. It also gave us the name — still meaning “dawn” — of the native Germanic celebration of Spring Equinox: Easter.

By the 8th century, at which point the Christianization of Britain was at least officially complete, Easter had acquired a Christian veneer without change to its name or apparently its customs. The English monk Bede recorded in 725 C.E. that April feasts intended in his time to celebrate Jesus’ resurrection were still being called after the native goddess Eostre, as was the month itself: Eostur-monath. By a familiar conversion tactic, observation of the year’s dawn at the vernal equinox was given a new ostensible purpose, but the tradition of joyful feasting survived.

What of Easter eggs and bunnies? Widespread prehistoric association of rabbits with spring’s renewal is very likely, in spite of concrete evidence. The rabbit was sacred to Greek love gods Aphrodite and Eros for its quick and lusty reproduction, and James George Frazer notes a common European folk belief linking the animal to witchcraft in his classic anthropological tome “The Golden Bough.” Attestations of the sacred springtime egg are more telling.

Traditional and modern Ukrainian pysanky. Photo by Carl Fleischhauer, 1981, Library of Congress, public domain.

In the United States, egg decorating for Easter seems to have been introduced by the sizable German immigrant communities, and if you have no other reference point for the practice you may be forgiven for dismissing this most iconic Easter tradition as having no substantive link to pre-Christian religions. But one must only widen one’s gaze to understand just how ancient is the egg’s connection to spring and concepts of fertility. The food-dyed American Easter egg pales in comparison to carefully etched multichrome Slavic pysanky of Eastern and Central Europe, which in their designs employ a symbol language firmly rooted in the pagan past. Traditionally prepared by the women of the house for the Easter/Spring Equinox celebration, pysanky are decorated in combinations of solar, vegetal, and natural symbols chosen for talismanic effect, many directly traceable to the Bronze and Neolithic Ages. Into modern times, the finished eggs would be placed under beehives, in mangers, and in hen’s nests to increase their occupants’ fertility; kept in the home for good fortune, wealth, and protection; given as gifts for the same results; and placed in coffins with the dead. Only fertilized eggs could be used, or the pysanky would bring no blessings of new life. Archeologists have found ritual objects in the form of decorated ceramic eggs at a site in Ukraine dating to between the 3rd and 5th centuries B.C.E., and numerous more recent carved and ceramic eggs in graves throughout the country.

The Slavs are not alone. Persians, too, have a long history of decorating eggs for their New Year, Nowruz — literally, “new day” — which corresponds to the Spring Equinox, and for the spring holiday Sham-el-Nesim, dating back to Ancient Egypt, modern Egyptians still color boiled eggs. An ostrich egg painted in complex red designs was among the finds in an Iron Age necropolis in Andalusia. And in a South African site associated with the earliest origins of the human species, numerous ostrich eggshell fragments etched in geometric patterns reminiscent of Slavic triangle and “ladder” motifs have been discovered and dated to a staggering 60,000 years old.

So, regardless of your feelings about Easter, those tawdry plastic eggs in the grocery store are the latest iteration of a practice long predating monotheism and most human ethnic divisions; an echo of a sacredness too fundamental to the species to entirely forget.

*****

While I aim for themes of general interest, my focus in this article is on the myths of Northwestern Europe because they are what I study. The world is full of other rich, complex, and sometimes contradictory traditions I omit because of my lack of sufficient knowledge, not through a lack of appreciation and respect.

Reva Sherrard works at Peregrine Book Company, studies Old Norse religion, and is writing a novel.

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