Okay, today is Easter and me and Oxford are fighting over a can of pressed ham chunks and a hardboiled egg. Ah, the "egg" a powerful mythical symbol.
"Humble egg has place in science, myth, art, religion"
April 4th, 2010
April 4th, 2010
They turn up in baskets every Easter, mysteriously delivered to children by that hip-hop artist with the long ears and fluffy tail. But there's much more to the humble egg than its kitschy association with Peter Cottontail.
That perfect oval shape contains everything, from the tiniest spark of life to the entire cosmos.
That's a lot of responsibility for something that usually competes with a chicken over which came first.
The present-day Easter egg follows a practice that dates at least as far back as Persia in 3000 B.C., when colored eggs were given to celebrate the coming of spring.
But in the realms of myth, art and science, the egg packs enough symbolism to rival "The Da Vinci Code."
Chinese myth holds that the world was created when a giant being hatched from an egg, whose broken parts became the Earth and sky. And consider the Big Bang theory, which employs the "cosmic egg" concept. It contends that universe was created by an explosion of extremely dense, compacted matter that is still expanding outward.
In that respect, it parallels an ancient Ukrainian belief that life at the beginning of the universe sprang from an egg.
Last week, Sts. Peter & Paul Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Carnegie held their annual Easter egg sale, which featured 1,500 eggs decorated in a traditional Ukrainian batik style called pysanky. The craft uses wax and a stylus to create colors that can symbolize rebirth, fertility or Biblical references.
"The egg itself actually predates Christianity by at least a couple thousand years," says Michael Kapeluck, an iconographer and church member who helped organize the sale. "It was a pagan art form. The people were very agricultural. They were attached to land, whether it was in the wheat field or in the mountains. Their gods were very agricultural."
Eggs decorated with particular symbols were thought to have special powers, he says.
"They were basically for good luck," Kapeluck says. "The symbols on the egg would be fertility for a young couple. They would be for a good crop or would trap spirits so your household would be safe."
When Christianity emerged, much of the symbolism was lost, but the art form remained, he says.
"In ancient times, the line that went around the egg without beginning or end was eternity. That was very easily adapted to Christianity," Kapeluck says.
At least one scientist made use of the egg's symbolism to hammer home a revolutionary new idea.
In 1651, English physician William Harvey published his findings that all animals, even those who were "born alive," came from an egg. The cover of his seminal book, "Exercitationes de Generatione Animalium," featured an image of the Roman godJove pulling apart two halves of an egg, from which animals leap forth. An inscription reads, "Ex Ovo Omnia" -- everything from an egg.
"Harvey is tapping into our culture's symbolism about everything springing from a primordial egg with this frontispiece," says James Lennox, professor of history and philosophy of science at the University of Pittsburgh.
"It has two meanings, both the symbolic meaning of myth, and a literal message he is sending to his fellow researchers -- all living things begin as eggs, not just the ones we see coming out of eggs."
The egg's harmonious design has given it prominent status in many cultures. Among them:
• The egg symbolizes unity for the Hmong, an ethnic hill tribe that migrated from China into Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and later the United States. "The egg is a real sense of unity for people," says Tracy Johnson, a social and cultural anthropologist who studied the Hmong in northern Thailand. "In the marriage ceremony, they will cut the hard-boiled egg in half and give the groom half and give the bride half. That's another way the two beings are joined, by partaking of the halves of this egg." Now the research director for Context-Based Research Group in Baltimore, Johnson says the Hmong communities in America incorporate a cracked hard-boiled egg in their New Year's ritual.
• Greeks dye eggs red for Easter. "Some people say it symbolizes the blood that was shed by Christ," says Mary Doreza of Churchill, director of the Grecian Odyssey dancers. "Others thinks of the red as a symbol of joy that comes with the resurrection." Red eggs sometimes are given out in church, Doreza says. Greek households also may use red eggs in a game called tsougrisma, or "clinking together." A person strikes the end of his egg against another's until one of them cracks. This is repeated with other opponents until only one remains with an intact egg. They will be granted good luck during the year.
• In a Dogon creation myth from West Africa, a "world egg" contains twins. One twin aggressively breaks out of the egg early; he forms the world with a part of the egg that he carries with him. The world is imperfect, and the Creator destroys the other twin. The perfect world is lost.
• In 1885, Peter Carl Faberge was commissioned by Tsar Alexander III of Russia to create a special Easter egg for his wife, Maria Fedorovna. The first Faberge egg opened up to reveal a yolk. Inside the yolk was a golden hen and inside the hen was a diamond miniature of the crown and a tiny ruby egg.