Friday, March 9, 2012

Eggs - Ukrainian pysanky

Though most people who make them are Catholics and their designs are described as Christian symbols, pysanky, the intricately decorated Easter eggs for which my Ukrainian ancestors are famous, are so blatantly Pagan in their rituals and motifs that they can be incorporated into our Ostara celebrations virtually unchanged. I thought this would be a good time to share some of those traditions and offer some suggestions how they can be incorporated into our celebration of Ostara. The eggs take a while to decorate, so you'll want to start now to have them ready for your Ostara altar.
Traditionally, Ukrainians make two kinds of Easter eggs: krashanky, hard-boiled eggs dyed a simple colour, usually red; and pysanky, raw eggs decorated with patterns of white, black and colours through a batik-like process. Both are prepared for giving as gifts and for ritual purposes, but the krashanky are eaten while the pysanky are kept and eventually dry out to hollow shells. A young woman would give a pysanka or krashanka to a boy she was interested in, children would be given krashanky as blessings and to play games with on Easter Monday. Beautifully decorated pysanky would be made for honoured friends and family members, and one would always be given to the priest. As well, both kinds of eggs were used for purely ritual purposes. Eggs blessed by the priest on Easter were kept in the home to protect it from fire, or in the barn to protect the livestock. Pysanky were thought to be so magically potent that if a blaze did break out, eggs would be thrown into the fire to extinguish it. The touch of a krashanka was believed to cure blood poisoning, and a person who was gravely ill might wear a pysanka around his neck as a healing talisman. Farmers would roll a krashanka in green oats and bury it in the fields to ensure the fertility of the crops, place one under their hives to protect the bees or bury four pysanky at the corners of the foundation when a house was being built. Pysanky were put into the coffins of loved ones to protect them on their way to heaven, or a krashanka might be placed on the grave of a dead child.

The making of pysanky was itself a ritual act, traditionally done only by women, at night after the men and children were asleep. (Though today more men take part, and some of the most beautiful pysanky I’ve seen are made by my uncle, at night after his wife goes to bed.) A beeswax candle is first lit on the work table, and a brief prayer is always spoken before beginning. Traditionally only fertilized eggs were used, and the eggs meant for the most magical purposes were taken from young hens that had only just begun to lay. Small groups of women might meet to decorate pysanky together, but more often it was done privately by one or two women in the household. The finished eggs were always kept hidden until Easter. This was women’s magic and had to be kept from the sight of men to remain potent.

Modern kystkas give very fine control
The pysanky designs are applied with a brass-tipped applicator called a kystka filled with melted beeswax. The first lines are applied to the white egg, then it's dyed yellow. Areas to remain yellow are coated with wax, and the egg is dipped in another colour, usually orange. This continues through a range of increasingly darker colours, ending with dark blue, dark red or black. When the decoration is finished, the accumulated wax is melted off to reveal the brilliant colours beneath. Eggs can either be pierced and blown out to leave the shells empty or traditionally left whole to dry out gradually over time. I won't give any detailed instructions here, because there are many much better how-to resources online, especially Ann Morash's wonderful site She includes not only detailed step-by-step instructions, but gives you designs to work from and lists sources for dyes, kystkas and other supplies. (I buy mine at a great Toronto store called Koota Ooma, but there are suppliers in many cities across Canada and the US, including many that offer online shopping.)

Traditional kystkas are easy to make.
If you can't wait to get proper materials (and you should - they're not expensive and produce a much better result), you can use ordinary Easter egg dyes (though the colours are less intense and you'll have to use something else for black) and make your own kystka. You can't substitute an ordinary wax candle for the beeswax, though - it doesn't melt at a high enough temperature to stick to the egg properly. Like painting, needlework, calligraphy and other crafts, decorating pysanky takes a steady hand, patience and practice.Your first attempts may be pretty awful (mine were) but you can improve quite quickly. (Wayne Schmidt is a pysanky novice who has a great page sharing the things he's learned and showing some of his progress.)

Two things that distinguish pysanky from other kinds of decorated eggs are the intricacy of the designs (the wax resist allows extremely fine, sharp lines that can't be duplicated with paint, felt markers or other methods) and the arrangement of colours. The resist dyeing makes it much easier to put light designs onto dark backgrounds, and there are always large areas of black, dark blue, purple and dark red to set off the patterns and bands of brilliant red, yellow, orange, green, pink or white. As well, most designs are outlined in fine white lines which act to separate the colours and make them sparkle. Because they are not meant to be eaten, the finished eggs are usually varnished or lacquered.

In spite of a thousand years of Christianity in Ukraine, very little unequivocally Christian decoration is used on pysanky today. Instead, most designs are symbols of fertility, harvest and nature. Plants, animals, birds, fish, even insects appear, but never human figures. Sun symbols are most common, both representational and highly stylized, but not the moon. The Christian Calvary cross is sometimes shown, or the three-armed cross of the Orthodox Church, but mostly it is the more ancient equal-armed cross that is used instead. Some of the images are now interpreted as representing Christian symbology, but an ancient Rus' Pagan would recognize them for what they have always been.

Here are some of the common designs and their meanings:

The most common motif on pysanky is the circle, in lines or bands of decoration that ring the egg either longitudinally or laterally. The circle represents protection, acting as a charm to keep out evil. Traditional Ukrainian and Russian shirts always have a band of embroidered decoration at each opening - neck, cuffs and hem - to similarly prevent evil from entering.

Eight-pointed stars are probably the most characteristic pysanka symbol. They may originally have honoured the sun god Atar. Now they represent success, happiness and life itself.

Similar to the star is the rose, which usually has an additional ring of petals around the outside, but it may be essentially the same as a star, distinguished only by the fact that roses usually have other floral motifs around them, while stars never do. The rose, of course, represents love.

The sun appears in many forms on pysanky, both as symbols and in slightly more representational images. It represents good fortune and growth, because nothing can grow without the life-giving power of the sun.

 Birds appear in many forms, usually fairly representational although quite stylized. They are usually hens, roosters or undifferentiated songbirds, though geese, swans and pheasants are sometimes used. Birds are almost always shown at rest, rather than flying. They represent the coming of Spring, good harvests, and a desire for wishes to come true. Like circles, bird motifs act to repel evil. The entire bird does not need to be depicted to exert its magical effect - often just a foot, an eye or a wing will be incorporated into the design.
Insects appear in the forms of butterflies, spiders or bees, often very stylized. Butterflies represent the coming of Spring, spiders good luck and prosperity, and bees the combination of hard work and pleasure that makes a good life. Regardless of what kind of insect is shown, they are always referred to as "butterflies".
Rams, cows, goats, horses and deer are all represented, often highly stylized. Like birds, sometimes the whole animal is symbolized by only a part, such as spirals representing rams' horns or two curved lines for the horns of a cow. Animals bring prosperity, wealth and good fortune, and since they are usually male animals, presumably fertility as well.

 Flowers are among the most varied designs, appearing in many forms and shapes. Often they are so stylized as to be scarcely recognizable out of context. Flowers always represent charity, love and goodwill. Sunflowers, which may be no more than a cross-hatched circle, call forth the returning warmth of the sun.
Fish are almost always recognizable although they may be very simple or quite elaborate. They have been adopted as a Christian symbol, but originally the fish was a spiritual guide, helper, and giver of wisdom.
Trees appear very often on pysanky, but they are often quite stylized and may not be recognizable. Sometimes only a leaf or a branch represents the whole tree or the forest itself. Human figures do not appear on pysanky, but they can be represented by trees: oak, maple and beech leaves are men, while birch, poplar and basswood (all quite similar-shaped) stand for women. Trees mean long life, youth, strength and good health.
Cross-hatched "nets" or "baskets" mean knowledge and motherhood. They are often triangles, which represent trinities: now the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, but originally air, fire and water, mother, father and child or sun, thunder and bonfire. Eggs can sometimes be decorated with nothing but intersecting triangles.
Ribbons or meanders around the egg represent eternity and everlasting life, and the seasons and repeating cycles of nature. As well, eggs may have three bands of flowers and foliage, representing the vinok or flower garland worn by girls for festivals and celebrations. The three vinky give blessings to the three stages of human life: birth, marriage and adulthood.

This is just a small selection; there are many other traditional symbols and decorations, each having one or more meanings. And of course the different colours have meanings as well, singly or in combinations. They are combined together into designs that represent an overall wish for the recipient or protective use of the egg. Thus a woman might create a brightly-coloured pysanka with floral patterns for her sweetheart, one with animals for her father to place in the barn, a dark-coloured egg with symbols like ladders or gates (representing the path out of life) for her grandmother, and one decorated with crosses and fish for the Catholic priest. Specific eggs were decorated to ease domestic tension, to protect travellers, to help women conceive children and every other situation where magical working might be called for. In essence, pysanky are magic spells created with symbolism and intent, as you would carve a rune stave or create a talisman.

The traditional Ukrainan rituals involving decorated eggs are now part of the Christian Easter celebration, but their ancient roots are so unspoiled that they can be incorporated into Pagan practice with little alteration. A basket is always prepared containing a loaf of egg-rich paska, or Easter bread, which is usually decorated with sun-symbols and floral designs. This usually has a hole in the centre into which a tall candle is placed. Into the basket (lined with a beautifully-embroidered cloth made for this purpose) is placed a selection of traditional and symbolic foods: hard-boiled krashanky, grated beet and horseradish relish, salt, butter (usually sculpted into a shape and decorated with cloves or flowers), sausage, cheese and of course decorated pysanky. The baskets are taken to the Easter mass and placed around the church. After the mass, the candles are lit in each basket and all are individually blessed by the priest. The basket is taken home and the head of the family (when I celebrated Easter with my Ukrainian family this was always my grandmother) begins the Easter breakfast by giving each person a portion of the blessed food (at least a slice of egg or a piece of bread dipped in salt) with the greeting "Kristos Voskrese!" (Christ is Risen), to which each answers "Voistynu Voskres!" (He is Risen Indeed). Then the meal is served, each person being sure to take a small portion of each of the blessed foods, along with the perogies, cabbage rolls, ham, roast beef, turkey, vegetables, bread, pastries and sweets that make up a typical Ukrainian feast.

The blessing of the food basket can be made a part of your group's Ostara celebration, with each family bringing their own to take home, or a communal basket shared by the participants after the ritual. The act of the priestess, priest or elder giving the first portion to each participant is an import one, and of course the greeting and response can be whatever is suitable for your practice, or even a simple "Blessed Be!" This is at heart a family ritual rather than a community one, so it is very suitable for a solitary practitioner or a small family group. The head of the family can also be the one who blesses the food as well as distributing it. You can alter the choice of symbolic foods if you need to (leaving out the sausage, cheese or butter, for example), but the core items of bread, salt, eggs and some sharp-tasting or bitter condiment should be included. (I happen to love horseradish, but you can substitute any bitter vegetable, such as dandelion, which is very seasonal.) The presence of the bitter herb in the Spring Equinox ritual meal dates at least from ancient Hebrew practice, if not earlier, and should not be left out.

No matter if you only make one or two simple pysanky, or even if you use a modern Easter egg kit, make ritually-decorated eggs a part of your Ostara celebration this year.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Fear of the DARK

This is in response to a post on gogosummer's blog New Moon Summer, about fear of the dark. It's something that many of us have to one degree or another, and after commenting on Summer's blog that she might want to invoke a spiritual guardian like St. Michael or Kwan Yin to guard over her while she slept, I decided to make a little protective shrine for exactly that purpose.

The Archangel Michael is one of those entities whose spirit moves across many religions. He is invoked by Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Pagans, Witches and many others in between. Universally seen as a helper and protector, he is the original "guardian angel" and is always willing to help when asked. A tiny bedroom shrine is the perfect way to request his protection from the unseen dangers that lurk in the dark while we sleep.

I started with a Roman Catholic holy card of St. Michael, which I got when I visited my mother the last time. Cards like this are available from Catholic gift stores, some churches (the Roman Catholic cathedral church in many cities is often dedicated to St. Michael), metaphysical shops, botanicas selling spiritual supplies for Hoodoo, Santeria, Voodoo and other African diaspora religions, and many online stores. (My local metaphysical shop literally can't keep St. Michael images in stock because they sell out almost as soon as the shipment arrives.) For the shrine case I was going to buy a plain wooden box at the dollar store, but I couldn't find anything the right size. I could have made it out of foamcore (a great material for these because it's so lightweight) but instead I decided to adapt something I already had, a miniature cabinet which was ugly and the wrong shape, but exactly the right dimensions.

A bit of work with a small saw and chisel removed the extraneous bits and reduced the depth of the box down to only 1/4 inch inside. (I left the base the original width so it can hold a candle.) I pulled out the misshapen fretwork and metal mesh in the face and cut a piece of glass from an old picture frame to replace it.

Red and blue seem like good St. Michael colours (and red is a traditional colour for shrines, especially in Asia), with of silver trim seemed to invoke his protective sword. I tried painting it with metallic silver acrylic paint, but it didn't seem very sharp, so I used aluminum tape instead, which was much better.

After positioning the picture carefully so it will show in the window, I added four lines from Psalm 91 of the Old Testament around it:
You need not fear the terrors of night,
The arrow that flies in the daytime,
The plague that stalks in the dark,
The scourge that wreaks havoc in daylight.
Some Pagans are uncomfortable with the use of Bible verses in spells, but there's a long tradition of it in both European and American magic. I see the Book of Psalms of the Old Testament as really just a collection of ancient Jewish spells and charms whose effectiveness has been enhanced by thousands of years of use. (The classic text on the subject is Godfrey Selig's 18th c. book The Secrets of the Psalms.)

On the front frame I wrote my petition, "Blessed Michael, watch over me." (Unfortunately I forgot that there would be a candle in front of it, )  Inside the front, around the back of the window, I glued seven grains of paradise. Grain of paradise is an African pepper-like spice whose use in European cooking is long forgotten but remains in use in American Hoodoo magic, and adding it to "activate" St. Michael images is one of its uses. (Seven is a good number for protective magic.) The grains of paradise and the Psalm will be hidden when the front is closed, but they don't need to be visible to work.
 Finally, I added a battery-powered tealight in front of it. These little electric flicker-candles are safe to leave burning beside your bed all night, and they're a lot less bright than a real candle, so make better night-lights. The finished shrine can be anointed with some sort of Protection Oil, and set up beside (or above) one's bed.

Instead of St. Michael, a little shrine to Kwan Yin would be equally beneficial for protection from night fears. In that case I would make the inside white instead of blue, and perhaps decorate it with tiny pearls. A small incense burner would be a good addition, too. There are some lovely prayers to Kwan Yin here.

Friday, February 10, 2012


I tend to want to learn all the crafts there is. When I see something I would like to have (buy) I always ask myself first if I could make it myself. So far I know how to sew, knit, crochet, pottery, embroidery, make candles and randomly use mixed media and up-cycle things. It's a big part of who I am and what I do; I'm crafty. Afterwards, I have the reward of using it and be proud of myself for making a useful/pretty thing.

When it comes to Witchcraft, there's no exception. The good intentions and energies you put into making something will last forever (or is easily renewed!). The object and its purpose are glorified; it makes them even more powerful. There's something so good about knowing every step of making something, knowing every components and technique used. So make your own altar cloths, make you own candles and incenses; find second-hands stuff and edit them to be your very own. Don't be scared to draw and paint on your tools; favourite animals, favourite runes, phrases and words. Carve symbols on your candles if you can't make them from scratch. It probably won't be perfect, but sometime (most of the time) imperfect is 10 times better.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Imbolc Altar

With the years, I'm starting to understand the true essence of Imbolc. We are far from having daffodil sprouting around; the land is still well covered by feets of snow, and will remain that way until late March; then the land will remain frozen for another month. But the Wheel has turned, and time has past. Spring, like always, is coming.

We've decorated our altar with simple symbols. I tried to make an hedgehog... but I think I failed! In my attempt to simplify, I turned a catholic sierge into a Bridig's one by drawing her on a piece of construction paper. The same material was used to make the cross. I just couldn't take out the books about snow and winter yet, as we are still in the middle of it!

Saturday, January 28, 2012


I can't stress enough how books are an important part of my life. When I finally realized all the knowledge I could acquire from devouring books, it was a blessing. I was never rushed to read by my mother, nor she told me how important it was to read, but I guess that often seeing her with a book in her hand, should it be a novel or a reference book, was enough to set the example.

And references books had to be her favorite kind, and she would always look for those about history of art... It was while browsing a book sale in the middle of a mall (her favorite kind of book shopping!) that I found my very first book about witchcraft, pictured above. A very poorly made book, with very little content... But I was 11, and this was about Witchcraft! SO cool, I thought, and asked my mom to buy it, which she did without really looking. I remember reading it from cover to cover in the car on our way home, which took about 20 minutes (told you there was not a lot of stuff in it...) But it changed everything! From now on I started seeking for witchcraft and wiccan books at the library and bookstores. Found books about runes, herbs, crystals... Oh, the possibilities!

I read on everything I could get my hand on, and became very serious about it. Eventually I read books that went way deeper into the craft then the (so beloved) first book I bought. Without books, I might have never stumble on all that knowledge. It's most likely that I would have never met an initiated Witch so early in my life, and with books I acknowledged that what I felt deep inside was also true for some peoples, should they live far away.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Pagan Blog Project calendar

I thought it would be useful to have a calendar of what letter of the alphabet will be the topic for each Friday of the upcoming year. This way we can plan what subjects we want to prepare a post for and maybe even get it written well in advance. Remember that you can write your post anytime and schedule it to appear on the appropriate day. Of course this list is subject to change, and Rowan Pendragon at PBP is the one who announces the official letter each week. She may adjust the position of the letters over the course of the year if she needs to.

Sunday, January 22, 2012


Bone was probably one of the first materials used by humans to create sacred objects. It's readily available, fairly easily worked, and even the most primitive societies readily recognize that bones are directly related to the person or animal from which they came. As blood has always represented Life because it comes only from living creatures, bones have always had a connection to Death because they are all that remains of us when we die. Although most of us no longer have mounds of fresh bones cluttering up the kitchen every day, modern Pagans can still use bone in many forms to connect with our Gods and especially our Ancestors.

The simplest and perhaps most beautiful way to use bone in a sacred setting is to place an animal bone or skull on your altar. At Samhain, skulls (either real or sculpted) are de rigeur, but they can be kept on an Ancestor altar year-round. Skulls and bones of animals and birds can be bought in stores or online, or even found in the wild. I have a couple of small skulls (a squirrel and - I think - a skunk) that I just found in our urban back yard. The intricacy and simplicity of skulls makes them quite beautiful, and they can be left bleached white, stained or painted. If you have a totem animal that you connect with strongly, a skull or bone of that specific animal can be a powerful bond, but ultimately all bones connect to our own ancestry at its most ancient.

Bone can also be used as a creative material in many ways. One of the oldest forms of bone craft is scrimshaw, which is simply scratching designs onto bone and staining the markings to make them visible. This is a wonderful way to make amulets and talismans, and the availability of small bone disks and plaques from craft and bead suppliers means you don't have to prepare your own from raw bones. (Which is cheap and fairly easy, but messy and not for the squeamish.) Bone is fairly hard, so you need to use a fairly sharp tool to engrave it. A short-bladed knife or a sharp awl will work, though care is needed to do a neat job and prevent accidents. A Dremel or other motor-tool is excellent for this, though grinding bone with a tiny drill does produce a characteristic smell that may invoke unpleasant memories of dentistry. When you have marked your rune, petition, sigil or other design, paint into the lines with ink or thin paint (India ink is traditional for this, and works very well) and wipe it off the surface to leave only the fine markings darkened.

While at the bead store, you can usually find other kinds of bone beads that are perfect to use in magical crafts. Cylindrical, oval and round bone beads are readily available, as are long tube beads which can be either sewn on or left hanging as pendant decorations. I particularly like these because of the lovely rattling sound they make. (Incidentally, this is the first test of whether beads are real bone or plastic - bone always knocks together with a high-pitched "click", while most plastic sounds dull.) Many suppliers have small Tibetan skull beads carved from bone, which seem inherently magical.

A simple bone craft that you can create, as part of a ritual or just by itself, is a bone cross. I made the one shown here in a workshop with the Niagara Voodoo Shrine a few years ago, and it's a protective charm that can be hung over the door (as I do) or anywhere else in your home to invoke the powers of the dead to protect your home and family. Besides the Ancestral connection of the bones themselves, the shape is a representation of a crossroads, which is a traditional place to petition the dead for help. Any large fowl bones and good for this, turkey, goose or even very large chickens, which can be kept from your next big family dinner (which connects the cross even more closely to your family) or you can buy two large turkey legs, make soup with the meat and use the bones. Clean the bones very thoroughly and put them into a pan with water and a little chlorine bleach to soak for a while. This will sterilize and bleach the bone. Hang them to dry, preferably in the sun, for several days.

To make the cross, simply attach the bones together with a dab of hot glue to hold them while you lash them together with yarn or embroidery thread. White, black or red are all traditional colours for this, or you can use any colours that seem right to you. Tie a small loop onto the top of the upright bone to use as a hanger, and decorate the cross with buttons, beads, cord or anything else that speaks to you. I used old buttons, a plastic skull, glass beads and red leather thongs. As you create the cross, concentrate on your intent to create a powerful protective amulet, and request the assistance of the dead, your own ancestors and those spirits who remain among us, to keep your home safe. The more time you take to add decoration to it, the longer you have to imbue it with your intent as you work.

Hang the cross over the main door or in a central position in your home. You can put it in an out-of-the-way place if you're worried people might think it's creepy, but mine has been hanging in plain sight over our front door for several years and nobody has even noticed it. (Many of us already have enough odd things in our homes that one more won't make much difference!)

Friday, January 13, 2012

A for Altar by Jeanette

Altar: is any structure upon which offerings such as sacrifices are made for religious purposes. Altars are usually found at shrines, and they can be located in temples, churches and other places of worship. Today they are used particularly in Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Shinto, Taoism, as well as LaVeyan Satanism, Thelema, Neopaganism, and in Ceremonial magic. Judaism did so until the destruction of the Second Temple. Many historical faiths also made use of them, including Greek and Norse religion; Information taken from

I’m a “born again” Pagan. I wasn’t raised this way but it is the path that I’ve been led down and I love it. I’m currently working on gathering alter tools and learning bits on the different celebrations and enjoying my new path. Any suggestions will be greatly appreciated. Thanks!

Monday, January 9, 2012

(Family) Altar

Our altar is placed in the kitchen; for everyone to see. It's a match of pagan altar and nature's table (from the Waldorf pedagogy). It always reflects what's going outdoor as the Wheel turns. Below is our altar as of now, between Yule and Imbolc.

I never do a by-the-book altar...I don't even own an athamé. Water is represented with seashell and Earth with sand, nuts and even a heart-shaped potato instead of salt. I do have a wax pentacle... I was cleaning one lantern from all the melt wax and a nice thick circle of wax formed, I took the occasion. I include figurines that represent the season, as well as children books for my daughter. She was very thrilled when I introduced the evergreen shaped candle in the beginning of December, telling her we'll light it when there will be snow!

I like how it's not in-you-face but more of a subtle way to decorate for the season. I let my children play with the figurines I put, and actually try the change the scene often to keep them thrilled and interested. As Imbolc comes I will take out the snowdrop fairy I made last year and put their wooden lambs toy on our altar. My daughter is 3 year old now so I'm slowly starting to explain her some things. So for Imbolc I want to explain her how Mother Earth is slowly growing all the flowers and greens in her tummy, so that when snow is gone (usually after Ostara) they will come out of the Earth. I want that to reflect in our altar, and keep it simple for a 3 year old to understand.

This altar is to create for my family something that I quite lacked of as a kid: A sense of Magic, Respect for the Earth, and Celebration of Life.

Kitchen windowsill altar

My simple windowsill altar consist of herbs that do me the favour of not dying after 2 weeks, an oil dispensers with my favourite oil of the moment, lanterns, an offering bowl in which I put pinches of salt and herbs as I prepare the meals, and my tiny red cauldron filled with crystals, stones and matches. (the toothbrush is for washing know...). It doesn't really look like an altar at all, but I know it, so that's what's counting. My offering bowl invites me to stop and be thankful and grateful for what I have. The simple lanterns are so welcomed when it's already dark at 4pm, the time I usually cook. They are simple gestures that makes a routine magical and the sight of all my little witchy thing just makes me happy.

What does the letter A inspires you?