Talking on Eggshells

Paul Wirhun


Over three millennia ago Slavic tribes celebrated the coming of Spring with eggs decorated with a wax-resist dyeing technique we now call batik. Sun worship was central to the cosmology of these peoples and to this vernal practice. After the long and cold winter it was pure joy to greet the warming solar rays, the melting of the snows, the thawing of rivers and lakes, the possibility of food growing again.


Chicken eggs held special powers, for the rooster greeted the rising sun, chasing away the demons of the night. Traveling merchants and fishermen carried roosters as alarm clocks and as protection from unknown dark spirits. Fertile hens eggs carry new life. This life energy was tapped through the ritual decorating and eggs became talismen, power objects used to conjure health, wealth and protection from undesirable natural and supernatural forces (lightening, fire, drought, the 'evil eye'), major concerns for a Neolithic agrarian society.


The process of creating these talismen is one of ritually connecting the eggs inherent life force with its intended use for human benefit. This is achieved through the drawing of symbols (designs) on the shell with beeswax, which is used as a resist in the dyeing process within batik. The Slavic word for these eggs are pysanky, which is derived from the verb "pysaty" to write. Within this definition we see the creation of pysanky as one of writing the intended symbols--as a means of conveying an intention--the hope, the promise that these solar reflecting talismen will produce. Even the process materials--the beeswax (made by bees from flowers), the natural dyes (from plant materials), and the oven in which the eggs are warmed to melt off the beeswax--evoke the sun.


Traditionally the process of writing pysanky was done by women, late at night after the rest of the family was asleep. Pure intentions were necessary and no evil thoughts or deeds could have been committed on that day. The symbols used on these shells were ancient, conveyed power and were not to be changed at whim. Thus we have to this day a set of prehistoric ideograms still in use, though some of their original meanings have been lost over time.


Creating pysanky was important, holy work--an ancient legend taught that the very fate of the world rested on the continuation of this practice. An evil creature, chained to the side of a mountain, would send out its servants yearly to count the number of pysanky created. If many were made, the chains would be tightened, allowing goodness and love to flow. If few existed, loosened chains meant bad times ahead. Should the practice cease, the monster might be loosed upon the world and all would be devoured.

I was raised in an American family with strong roots in the Ukrainian (Catholic) church and culture. My mother taught me the art of writing eggs by the age of ten and I took to it. I continued making pysanky through seminary schooling and the years of drift that followed, having left the seminary knowing that as a gay man I did not wish to endure the closet or a closetted sexuality.


After moving to Provincetown, MA on a lark for a summer--or so I thought--I began experiencing a gestalt shift. With the newfound freedom and support of artists that Provincetown offered I grew to understand myself as an artist and turned to the only medium I knew for visual expression, batiked eggs. There was a day I can still vividly remember just before I turned thirty. I sat looking at an egg I had recently finished and it hit me that I had mastered something. There was a sense, for the first time, that I could stand on my own two feet and from there I could walk my own path. From that moment forward I began to design my own eggs instead of only copying traditional patterns. Simultaneous with this new expression, I was challenged with this dilemna: How would this newer artform reflect the understanding of eggs as a metaphor of new life within our contemporary culture which questions the very ideas of meaning and symbol?


My years in Provincetown, surrounded by incomparable beauty, a supportive artists community and a large, vibrant gay & lesbian community were ones of exploration. I explored myself sexually in the open freedom of the dunes and beaches; my spirituality in those same places and my growing connections of sex & spirit in the radical faerie community... and this medium I began calling egg-art. I became known as The Eggman. I went beyond conventional batiking on the shell and began understanding my ability as a draftsman with a fine wax line, then with a colored pencil, and understood how to use the egg dyes as water colors, using innovative brush and X-acto knife techniques to expand my visual repetoire. This expanding artistic vocabulary allowed me to expand symbolic elements on the shells that spoke more to my own spiritual experiences.

My studio theme from the beginning was "ancient design for a new world view" because I understood how ancient ways of connecting with the cosmos as seen in art could teach us modern ways of reconnecting to the world at large. Each egg is a universe unto itself. Whether writing pysanky or drawing a seascape, I was creating a particular and new event in time--an emergence of an intended new way of experiencing reality.


The rich patterns of my ancestors encoded their understanding of how symbols empowered their interactions with the forces of nature. More and more I began seeing these same patterns reflected in other primitive art. I was interested to see the same symbols and patterns in Athenian geometric funerary pottery from 1000 bce that are still drawn on traditional Ukrainian pysanky. The Greeks later developed the drawing of Attic black and red figure pottery (700-450 bce) from this earlier hieratic style, celebrating the beauty of the human form in all its expressions. This pottery became a treasure trove of imagery for me to appropriate as an expression of joyous, even raucous homoerotica. Copying these male nudes, whether in mythological, athletic or sexual settings, not only refined my ability in figure line drawing, but allowed me to express (initially) the beauty of my sexuality. I was bringing to the present an ancient's view of sexuality, which included aesthetic, mythological and spiritual components. Choosing which subject, akin to ascribing which ideograms to paint on a pysanky, allowed me to understand how I viewed myself and what type of world I desired.


This is an act of remembrance that is inherent in the batik process itself. As a resist to dyeing, drawing beeswax on an egg is to remember that particular color within the form of the drawn symbol--itself a remembering that this ideogram means this intention. When the egg is finished and the wax removed, those colors reappear, reminding us that at one point in its creation story--this egg was, say, red--conveying the energy of love and passion. By using design imagery from the past we remember that perhaps there is another way to view our lives and how we relate to ourselves and one another. For instance, by looking at satyrs cavorting on Attic pottery I realize an understanding of male sexuality the ancients accepted. This is especially helpful as I realize myself with sex & spirit reunited as one with my art and daily life--something which was severed during my years in seminary.


Out of this realization came my talisman for gay male sexual healing--featured as the illumination of the opening letter of this article. An Attic black cock wraps around an orange ostrich shell, ejaculating on himself--self in divine bliss with Self. It is inscribed with words in praise of Dionysus, the god of the vine, ecstatic and erotic revelry, theater, and the son of Zeus and a nymph--the first mythical son of a god and a mortal mother. History shows us how this mythology was applied in later Hellenic times to the historic Jesus when the church was making him into the "Christ"--the anointed one. This later son of god was stripped of any erotic feeling and his name has been used to deny us the divinity in our own sensual pleasure. With this image and these inscribed words I intend to reconnect the sacred with the wildly erotic--and create a talisman for our communal healing. I pray that your sexual lives are divinely satisfying!


But beneath this frangible surface, while reflecting on the sexual imagery I have been drawing on eggshells, I came to understand that eggs themselves convey sexuality by their mere existence. Without the sex act implicit, an egg would not exist--especially the fertile eggs necessary for the creation of pysanky. The shell that remains is a memory of that sexual union--the connection of the male and the female--the joining and ultimate balancing of opposites that creates new life. This balancing is inherent in the very nature we queers manifest as the third-gendered, the walks-between peoples and is the goal for all humans in creating a whole self and a healthy world. A necessary balance as delicate as the shells on which I write.


Tea Eggs

4 large eggs

1 T salt

4 slices crushed ginger root

1stick cinnamon

3 whole star anise

3 T rice vinegar

2 T soy sauce

1/3 cup strong black tea (darjeeling, formosa, oolong)

Cover eggs in 1 inch of cold water and boil. Simmer for ten minutes. Refresh the eggs under cold water and lightly crack the shells all over but do not remove the shells. In a stainless steel or enamel saucepan combine 8 cups of water, the salt, ginger, cinnamon stick, star anise, vinegar and soy sauce. Bring to a boil and stir in the tea leaves. Simmer for 20 minutes. Add the eggs and continue to simmer for 45 minutes. Remove from the heat and allow the eggs to cool in the tea mixture. Rinse and remove shells. May be made a day in advance.