Pysanka, or Ukrainian Easter eggs, are those distinct and intricately flourished orbs painted in crimsons and cobalts, with symbols of flowers, chickens, deer and other organic indicators of the rebirth of spring.
The tradition of pysanka originated thousands of years ago in pagan Eastern Europe. With the coming of Christianity to Ukraine in the 10th century, these eggs took on distinctly Christian spiritual import.
In the Christian tradition, eggs are a widely regarded symbol for the interconnectedness of the womb and the tomb. The cyclical nature of the life cycle. The egg signifies at once both fragile brokenness and the possibility of new life. In short, eggs are a symbol of the resurrection.
Religious freedom violations mount in Ukraine
And now, as Russian aggression against Ukraine persists, the eggs have taken on a rebirth of spiritual meaning yet again. Sofika Zielyk, a Ukrainian-American artist and ethnographer shared with the Washington Post last year:
“The way these (pysanka) eggs relate to what is going on, I started an installation at the Ukrainian Institute of America. Let me preface this by saying there is a very old pagan legend, a Ukrainian legend, that said as long as people are still making pysanka, the world will continue to exist. … People thought that they had to make these eggs in order for the world to (continue).”
Ukraine’s people and its foundational religious and cultural institutions are under attack. As Chris Sunnu recently wrote:
“For generations, oppressive authoritarian rule has quashed religious freedom and limited individual opportunities across the globe. The United States should stand with freedom-loving people and help support emerging democracies wherever they are.”
And, according to the Episcopal News Service, Russian military forces have seized churches and other religious institutions in Ukraine, turning them into military bases. More than 500 congregations and sacred sites have been demolished, damaged or plundered.
When sacred institutions are violated, both individual and collective religious freedom are truncated. Faith communities in Ukraine have lost more than the physical buildings at which they gather with coreligionists. They have lost sacred art and architecture, hundreds of years of spiritual history and outreach programs that offer both spiritual and material nourishment. For Ukraine, the loss of institutional religious freedom is also the loss of personal spiritual freedom.
Ukrainian women and religious freedom
Yet, the role of Ukrainian women in advancing religious freedom and other human rights during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has largely been overlooked.
Women in Ukraine, like every other community in the world, are often the weavers of community life. Women are also the sustainers of many vital civil society institutions that share deep roots of place and faith: families, worshipping communities, schools, cultural organizations, social programs and so much more.
With respect to the Ukrainian myth of the world that keeps moving forward as long as pysanky eggs continue to be made, Zielyk shared:
“And it is interesting, only women were allowed to make these eggs. So the fate of the world rested on women’s shoulders.”
As I have previously written, spiritual mothers are defined those faithful and humble women who sustain life in their communities through constantly nourishing a web of interconnected relations — kith and kin. Spiritual motherhood is brought to life through sacred, ancient myths like the Ukrainian women who co-create the world anew each morning through their perpetual creation of pysanky eggs. And particularly now, spiritual mothers like Zielyk are inviting each of us to step into our own individual and collective sacred stories through art, beauty and creativity.
Spiritual mothers, like the pysanky eggs themselves, incubate social and spiritual transformation by weaving “a circle of loving-kindness, that interdependent ‘with-ness’ of being held in the maternal matrix,“ as I wrote in an essay for Comment.
When a woman’s religious freedom is violated, her full capacity to embody love in all the communities and institutions in which she serves is also denied. How many thousands of grandmothers, mothers, daughters, sisters, solidors, friends, teachers, clergy and other women of Ukraine are finding their religious freedom stifled right now?
According to the Institute for Religious Freedom, Ukrainian Orthodox Church congregations were disproportionately impacted by Russian forces — with almost 150 churches confirmed destroyed and possibly twice as many that are yet to be documented. In addition, religious buildings representing, but not limited to, the following faith communities have been marred by Russian aggression: Jehovah’s Witnesses, Pentecostal churches, Seventh Day Adventist Church, Jewish synagogues, Muslim mosques, and Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints Churches.
It is a much-studied and widely recognized phenomenon that women in almost every major world religion — with few exceptions — outnumber men in practicing their faith in their congregational communities and disproportionately volunteer to provide essential spiritual and community service programs of those congregations. Yet, when religious buildings are ravaged in war, very rarely is there reflection on the impacts on the women that sustain their faith communities on a day-to-day basis.
Asma Uddin, in her book “When Islam is Not a Religion,” provides a nuanced definition of religious freedom:
“Freedom is the capacity to do things in the world, whereas liberty is thought of as the absence of external constraints. … Both (religious freedom and religious liberty) refer to the right to hold religious beliefs and engage in religious practice apart from government interference.”
The violations of religious freedom in Ukraine have been so egregious in part because of the ways in which they have silenced unseen and everyday religious acts done by women. The creation of pysanka eggs is itself an act of incarnated religious and spiritual freedom. And it is the women — both Christian and pagan — who continue to engage in these small acts of advocacy, resistance and peacemaking.
When women live out their God-given freedom to worship, to fellowship, to create sacred art, to advocate for God’s vision of shalom, to love their neighbors and their enemies, then religious freedom is preserved. When religious freedom is protected, women are empowered with the freedom to sustain not only their own lives, but the complex and interconnected lives of other individual persons, social and spiritual organizations, and the natural world.
World religions and the cosmic egg
Matthew Fox has noted that many faith traditions have recognized the cosmic egg as a symbol of the rebirth for both the natural world and for the human family. Likewise, Richard Rohr has recognized that the cosmic egg signifies something “maternal, with each dome nestled and held by something larger than itself.” And medieval mystic and saint Hildegard von Bingen provides this explanation of the universe as cosmic egg: “By this supreme instrument in the figure of an egg, and which is the universe,” she writes, “invisible and eternal things are manifested.”
The idea of the world egg, or cosmic egg, is a spiritual symbol found in many global faith traditions and in mythology. In many creation stories, the egg represented the symbol through which the cosmos came into being. In Greek mythology, the universe was born from an orphic egg encircled by a snake. In ancient Egypt, communities worshipped the sun god Ra, birthed from a cosmic egg that emerged from the primordial waters of chaos. In the Hindu tradition, Brahma and Shiva were also born of the cosmic egg. In addition, religiously and spiritually inspired egg-related traditions associated with the rebirth of spring have been practiced around the globe for thousands of years, long before the birth of Christianity. It is thought that the practice of Easter egg rolling was likely adopted from pre-Christian customs and came to symbolize in the Christian tradition the stone being rolled back from Jesus’ tomb to reveal His resurrection.
A final word to hatch
Humans understand their world, in both the material and physical sense, through story.
Zielyk started an exhibit with the Ukrainian American Institute last year to collect pysanky eggs from people around the world to support Ukraine. Zielyk extended an invitation “for everybody — of Ukrainian descent, not Ukrainian descent, five year olds to people who think they are Picasso to create a traditional Pysanka design and send it to the Ukrainian Institute of America.”
Zielyk embodies spiritual motherhood and the incubating of social and spiritual transformation through her crowd-sourced global collection of pysanka eggs. Her dedication to the perpetuation of the pysanka eggs, particularly made by women, is a living example of religious/spiritual freedom embodied:
“The installation will be there until the war ends, and when the war is over, the eggs will go to Ukraine to help with the rebirth because the eggs symbolize rebirth. In the olden days, eggs were not meant to be held onto. They were meant to be used in the Easter season, so they were meant to be buried in the ground so the harvest would be better. And that is the way the eggshells will be used symbolically, to help with the rebirth of the nation.”
This year, as Christians around the world celebrate Easter, let us pray for our Christian and non-Christian brothers and sisters alike that we all may have the religious freedom we need to incarnate our own sacred tradition’s stories for today, and for the promotion and redemption of generations yet to come.
Chelsea Langston Bombino is a believer in sacred communities, a wife and a mother. She serves as a program officer with the Fetzer Institute and a fellow with the Center for Public Justice.