The deceptive glitz of social media has not spared even the humble Easter egg. Indefatigable efforts to post photos of flamboyant eggs that match house interiors annihilated the civilizational significance of Easter eggs by prioritizing aesthetics over essence. Eggs sustain a primordial relationship between life and death and their role in Easter celebration transcends decorative trends. The mythological, religious and ethnic significance of eggs intertwine to symbolize the victory of life over death.
Pre-Christian mythology conceptually associates eggs with the creation of the world. Ancient civilizations believed that a cosmic egg was an initial concept that emerged out of original chaos. Other concepts eventually emerged from the cosmic egg. For instance, in Taoist doctrine, the separated poles of eggshell became heaven and earth. In Egyptian mythology, Ra, the first God of Sun and the creator of the universe emerged out of the primal egg. Likewise, in ancient Greece, Orphic Egg was considered a primeval concept that brought Phanes to life. Being the god of procreation and life, Phanes subsequently created all other deities. Peculiar adherence of geographically distant societies to the same creational myth preserved the appreciation of an egg as an inexhaustible source of life and harmony of complementary concepts – heaven and earth, life and death, love and creation.
Despite the worldwide eradication of paganism and polytheism, life-bearing symbolism of eggs has been perpetuated in Christianity, as well. Biblical events substantiate the relationship between eggs and rebirth and explain the origination of egg coloring as well as the supremacy of the customary red color. After the crucifixion of Jesus, people were hoping for miraculous resurrection. Romans, however, mocked the beliefs of early Christians claiming that the resurrection can only happen if hens laid red eggs. On the first Sunday after the crucifixion, the prophecy was fulfilled - Christ rose from the dead and all eggs turned red. Christian doctrine thereafter associated eggs with spiritual rebirth and the defeat of death.
The symbolism of red color is not accidental. Red color resembles blood and blood brings life and ensures salvation. Moses instructed Israelite families in Egypt to paint their doors red in order to be spared from the plague of death. Therefore, the synthesis of biblical symbols persists unchanged as a sublime reminder of eternity for all Christians.
The Balkans embodies an unprecedented confluence of mythical and religious heritage. The principal significance of Easter eggs is eccentrically retained though folk beliefs and customs related to the coloring techniques, quantity and supernatural qualities of Easter eggs. Eggs are commonly colored on Good Friday, the last Friday before Easter day. Red has always been the main color while other means of decoration such as wax, herbs and flowers also have a long tradition. Preferring opulence over simplicity, Balkan people introduced other colors as well. Therefore, yellow and black were widespread in addition to red. Red eggs were a typical Easter gift for boys, while yellow eggs were intended for girls. On the other hand, black eggs called “monks” could be found in households in which a member died before Easter, although this custom is no longer valid. On the contrary, black has even become fashionable, while grieving families do not color their eggs at all.
“The more, the merrier” is the only rule defining the quantity of the eggs to be colored for Easter. The abundance of Easter eggs was a status symbol of households. Eggs were the most common gift on Easter day and the main dish. All guests visiting a household during Easter holidays are expected to bring a colored egg for each member of the host family, while the hosts should in return gift each guest with a colored egg upon leaving. Egg coloring used to be a highly exhausting task for newly-wed girls. Depending on the budget, a bride’s family had to procure between one and two hundred eggs and send them to their daughter's new house. The bride then had to color and decorate all the eggs and give one decorated egg to each guest who attended the wedding the previous year. Moreover, the best man had to be given twenty-four colored and decorated eggs as a sign of respect.
In addition to gift-giving, there are other practices that justify the abundance of Easter eggs. A boiled egg has up to now been the first food that Orthodox Christians taste on Easter day after seven-weeks of strict lent. Easter bread should be traditionally adorned with a red egg. Besides the nutritional role, eggs have a social and entertainment aspect, too. For example, egg cracking competitions have been widespread for centuries. They are performed in each Orthodox Balkan family throughout Easter holidays. The family members greet each other with “Christ is risen!” and “He is risen, indeed!” Then they crack first the upper and then the lower part of the eggs. Everyone tries to find the strongest egg and become champions. In certain regions, egg cracking competitions are a public event organized in city squares and attended by many participants and observers. There are even intricate strategies for the nutrition and breeding of hens before Easter, which are meant to solidify the eggshells and eventually ensure the victory in cracking competitions. The use of stone, wooden or wax-filled eggs is considered cheating.
The egg and superstitions
Amusing Balkan customs have a unique superstitious background. Originally Christian reverence of Easter was merged with ritualistic endeavors to invoke wealth and health. In that regard, even today, the first red-colored egg is kept as a guardian of a household, providing universal protection against all kinds of predicaments. The guardian egg used to be buried in the vineyard to increase the yield of grapes, or it was kept at home until the next Easter.
Burying a colored egg into an anthill was a technique meant to boost the fertility of the hens on a farm. Apparently, the egg in an anthill would make hens lay as many eggs during the year as there are ants in the anthill. On the other hand, the longevity of domestic animals could be achieved by cracking an Easter egg against a horn of the oldest ram on a farm. Furthermore, rubbing an egg over the face on Easter day was a common beauty hack intended to bring a rosy complexion and good health for all family members throughout the year.
There is obviously more to Easter eggs than glitter and chocolate. The comfort and opulence of modern lifestyle dismissed profound contemplation of the intrinsic nature of deeply rooted practices. Jolly Easter celebrations are not to be taken for granted. Proper understanding of cultural, historical and religious aspects of traditions is the only means of the rational cultivation of the intangible wealth that ancient civilizations meticulously preserved for us. The complexity behind the delightful custom of egg coloring hides a plethora of forgotten myths and neglected devotion. The pious reverence that our ancestors felt for Easter should serve as a reminder of our divinely composed existence.
The symbolic recurrence of eggs represents unassailable evidence of ethereal creation. For that reason, our civilizational duty is to fight oblivion, bearing in mind that there is no fall without a rise and that there is no death without a new life, because life comes first.