Last week, we took a look at the role of the innocuous egg in Russian culture, specifically around the main religious festival of the year: Orthodox Easter. There’s much pleasure, tradition and symbolism invested in this relatively humble and ubiquitous item, whose worth within society, both nutritionally and otherwise, predates Christianity itself.
We take them for granted, but eggs are tiny, everyday miracles: seemingly inanimate objects from which life (or lunch) emerges, a fact not lost on early Pagan cultures for whom, nature and supernature were part of the same whole. When Christianity arrived, the symbolism of the egg was a perfect fit; a living example of rebirth and the life after. No wonder then that eggs have been inextricably linked with the traditions and beliefs of Easter. The Pagan/magical connection just won’t go away however; dwelling alongside modern Christianity, often with no apparent contradiction or conflict. If the Christians couldn’t stop Paganism then what chant did the Soviets have? Vlada comments on her Just Russian blog:
“In the Soviet times, Easter celebrations were strongly discouraged, but somehow the date of Easter was always known to everyone.”
Moving back into magical thinking, in Russia an egg was traditionally believed to be a magical item. It bestowed protection against the forces of evil whilst keeping cattle and crops healthy, and it provided the home with supernatural protection against the ravages of the weather. They were also placed within a house’s foundations to bring good fortune and happiness to the owner, or if kept from one Easter to the next; were said to provide supernatural protection against fire, flood and various other forms of natural disaster (also including the weather, presumably?).
An egg given earnestly “from the heart” was said never to taint, and you could even roll one over and across your face to look younger again, or so the story goes.
It’s hard to say where Paganism ends and Christianity begins when applied to the egg (and much else); such is the symbolism for both camps in the central cycle of life and rebirth, whether applied to the turning of the year or to the rising/raising of the dead. Mary Magdalene is said to have visited the Emperor Tiberius after the crucifiction to declare that: “Christ has risen”; so originating the phrase that is still customarily exchanged today across Russia, on and after Easter Sunday. The response, incidentally is: “Indeed He has risen!”, both in Russian of course.
It was expected that a visitor to the emperor should bare a gift, and so, being a woman of modest means, she presented the emperor with a single egg. Hearing her statement, Tiberius replied in disbelief: “Christ has no more risen than that egg is red!” and sure enough, the egg itself responded by turning crimson blood-red and the point was made. Subsequently, red-coloured eggs have come to symbolise the blood of Christ and may sometimes be pricked or cracked with nails to symbolise His suffering on the cross.
Eggs of uncertain heritage
An egg, presumably boiled, is sometime divided at the Easter table and shared amongst the assembled family members, which sounds suspiciously like a version of the Eucharist, or a family unity ritual, or both? They (the eggs) may also be brought along with beer and bread to cemetery grave sites so that the dead may also partake of the feast; as if the resurrection can’t come soon enough. Or is that a Pagan honouring of the departed, overlapping into Christianity? Where exactly is that line drawn?
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