Folk-Lore/Volume 20/Roumanian Easter Eggs

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Plate XIV.


To face p. 294.



If it be to the advantage of a people to boast a mixture of origins, the Roumanians possess here a legitimate source of pride, for few nations are compounded of more diverse elements than the Roumanian nation. There is a substratum that may be termed "Dacian," but with this is mingled a Latin element, the preponderance of which is attested by the Neo-Latin character of the existing Roumanian language. There is also a considerable Sclavonic admixture in the nation, and in the language one-third of the words are derived from this source. Moreover, there is political as well as ethnological complication, for the Roumanians at the present time are not confined to the kingdom of Roumania, but also inhabit neighbouring provinces,—Transylvania (belonging to Hungary), Bukowina (belonging to Austria), and Bessarabia (belonging to Russia),—as well as some regions in Macedonia and Servia and sundry villages in Bulgaria.

The social conditions in all these districts are, however, similar, the population consisting, speaking broadly, of two classes,—a very large peasant class and a small class of landowners. The town population and landowning class together do not amount to 18 per cent, of the total, so that it is clear that the peasant is the typical Roumanian. In spite of the fact that education has long been nominally compulsory, few of the peasants can read or write, and fewer still have been in any way affected by the spread of Western thought and civilisation. The peasant is therefore, intellectually speaking, very much what he has been at any time during the last few hundred years. He lives in a little two-roomed cottage with a verandah. Together with his wife he attends to the cattle and cultivates Indian corn, and his wife also spins, weaves, and embroiders in red and black the beautiful garments worn by the peasantry and now so much admired in Western Europe. The life is monotonous and simple, as, besides the alternations of summer and winter and seedtime and harvest, it is only varied by the rigidly-kept fasts and feasts of the Orthodox Greek Church. The most important of the fasts are one of six weeks before Christmas and one of seven weeks before Easter.

An Orthodox fast is a much more severe thing than a Roman Catholic or Anglican one. During the entire duration of the fast, no animal food of any kind,—not even milk, cheese, or curd,—is allowed, and life is supported, as best may be, on a diet consisting chiefly of Indian corn and beans.

But, if Lent is a fast, Easter is a feast indeed. Even the poorest Roumanian peasant contrives then to have new clothes. Cakes are baked, and Easter eggs with characteristic designs on them are prepared in large quantities. "Red eggs at Easter time" is a Roumanian expression for inevitableness, as Easter without red eggs is unthinkable.

There are many customs in connection with the exchange or the breaking of the eggs. If two friends or relations wish to break eggs together, the younger one holds out an egg with the pointed end up and says "Cristos a înviat" (Christ has risen). The older one then strikes the younger one's egg with the pointed end of his own egg, saying "Adevărat că a înviat" (He has risen indeed). Sometimes the owner of the unbroken egg takes possession of the broken egg, and in fact of all the eggs he breaks. Eggs are

Plate XV.


To face p. 296.

kept and the greeting Cristos a înviat is used until Ascension. In Macedonia one egg is put on the icoana or saint's image, and kept there till St. Maria's Day. The icoana is supposed to keep it from going bad.

A special ceremony in connection with red eggs is described by T. Stratilesco in her book From Carpathian, to Pindus, p. 180:—

"On the Monday after Easter Monday comes the Blajini (a feast of Slav origin) particularly respected by women in some parts. The Blajini are supposed to be, as their name indicates, meek, goodnatured men, very good and agreeable to God, living in some distant fairyland by the "Sunday water." They also seem to be out of touch with what is passing in the world, and do not know when Easter is. Therefore, women ought to throw the red egg-shells on running water to be carried down to the Blajini, so that they may see that Easter has come and celebrate it."

The supposed origins of red eggs are related in eight legends contained in Marian's Serbătorile la Romăni (The Festivals among the Roumanians). According to one of them, the red eggs were made for the first time by the Virgin Mary just after the birth of Christ, and were thrown at the Jews to enable Mother and Son to escape. According to a second legend, the stones thrown at Jesus turned to red eggs, and, according to a third, the stones to be used as missiles by the guardians of the Sepulchre turned to red eggs. The fourth legend, given at length below, ascribes the red to the blood of Christ, and the remaining four legends agree that the eggs became red as a miracle in testimony to the resurrection of Christ. One of the last group runs as follows:—

After Christ was buried, several Jews, glad to have escaped from Him, met together to have a feast, to eat, drink, and make merry. Among the dishes was a cock which had been boiled whole, and also several plates of boiled eggs. While they were all at table and the merriment was at its height, one of them remembered the words of Jesus which He had spoken before He was taken and crucified, namely that on the third day He would rise again from the dead. This Jew reminded the rest of the guests of this saying, whereupon the principal man of the company, who sat at the head of the table, began to laugh, and said,—"When this cock which we are now eating rises from the dead, and when all these clean white eggs turn red, then Christ also will rise from the dead." Scarcely had he uttered these words when, by the power of The Lord, all the eggs at once turned red, and the cock rose up and, flapping its wings, began to crow, and sprinkled the Jews with the sauce. When the Jews saw this, they were seized with a great fear, and, springing up from the table, took to flight. The sprinkling with sauce gave rise to the skin diseases which the Jews often have on their faces, and, ever after this miracle, the Roumanians have always made red eggs at Easter time.[1]

The legend which explains the redness of the eggs as due to the blood of Christ runs as follows:—

It is said that, when Our Lord Jesus Christ was on the Cross, and when His bitter enemies were mocking and persecuting Him, the Virgin Mary, His Mother, was filled with a great pity for Him, and, wishing to do something, however little, to alleviate His sufferings, she took a basket of eggs, went to the Jews, bowed herself down before them, and pleaded with them to cease their persecution. But the wicked Jews, instead of listening and having pity on Jesus, began to mock Him even more, and, when Jesus asked for water to drink, they gave Him in mockery vinegar and nettles. When Mary saw this, she put the basket of eggs beside the Cross, and began to sob as though her heart would break. As streams of blood from Jesus' wounded hands and feet fell on the eggs, some of them were completely stained by the blood as though they had been dyed, while others were stained in part only. Then Our Lord Jesus Christ, seeing how the eggs were coloured by His blood, cast His eyes on those around Him and said,—"From now on, you also must make red eggs, or eggs stained in part with red, in remembrance of My Crucifixion, for thus have I done today." After Our Lord rose again, Mary was the first to make red eggs, and, full of joy at seeing her Son again, she greeted everyone she met with "Christ is risen," and with the greeting she offered a red egg.

Though plain red eggs are common both in the kingdom and elsewhere, eggs with a red ground and a design in white upon it are more characteristic.

The method of making the designs upon the eggs is essentially the same for all Roumanians except those from Macedonia. It consists in protecting certain lines and points by wax, colouring the egg by boiling it in a red solution, and finally removing the wax, leaving white lines and points. The eggs are in the first place well washed, sometimes with sour whey, so that they may take the

Plate XVI.


To face p. 298.

colours and the wax more easily, and then they are wrapped in a cloth and put near the opening of the stove to keep warm. Beeswax is melted by putting it into a dish over glowing charcoal, and, by means of a small metal tube fixed into a wooden handle, is then applied to the egg either in lines or points, the little tube acting as a pen nib for the liquid wax. The designs are made on the eggs from memory, and, although many eggs may be decorated at one time, the operator may make no two designs alike. After the application of the wax, the eggs are boiled in a red dye, generally logwood. After this, the wax is wiped off with a hot cloth. The eggs are now finished, and show their designs in white on a red ground. The designs are in the main traditional and characteristic of the locality from which the operator comes, but modifications, and even new designs, are by no means unknown.

In Bukowina and Transylvania, more frequently than in the kingdom of Roumania, the eggs may be ornamented with designs in two or more colours. To effect this, the process described above is repeated again and again, starting with the lightest colours, and ending with the darkest. For example, supposing that yellow, red, and black are the colours chosen, the first operation is to cover with wax the parts to be left white. The eggs are then boiled in a yellow dye, and the parts to be left yellow are covered with wax. The egg is next boiled in a red dye, and the parts to be left red are covered with wax. Lastly, the egg is boiled in a black dye, and all the accumulations of wax are wiped off.[2] The results with several colours are most successful and artistic, the colours being harmoniously blended, but the primitive character of the designs is to some extent obscured in these more elaborate decorations. The colours used are all vegetable colours, and, with the exception of logwood, are all prepared by the peasants themselves. In one recipe, for yellow dye, alum is added to an infusion of the bark or leaves of Pyrus sylvestris. Black dye is prepared from walnuts, and so on.

The Roumanians of Macedonia use only the white and red colours, like their kinsmen in the kingdom of Roumania, but usually both the colouring and the process are reversed, i.e. they produce a red design on a white ground instead of a white design on a red ground. To get this result the eggs are boiled in logwood, and then the lines of the design are put on in wax, not by means of an instrument, but by applying threads of wax prepared by hand, the designs and method reminding one of the well-known Macedonian filagree work. The eggs are then boiled in sour whey (the iaurt of the Balkan Peninsula), or in citric acid, which bleaches the red ground, leaving it white, and the design appearing in red when the wax is removed. A simpler process, which is now becoming more popular, is to draw the design on a red egg with a pen dipped in a moderately strong acid, thus getting white lines on a red ground.

The designs are of immense variety, but in Roumanian eggs differ in general character from those employed by neighbouring peoples. For example, Hungarian eggs have usually geometrical decorations, and less commonly patterns derived from the animal and vegetable worlds, although it may be remarked that the crocus is frequently to be seen on the eggs of the Szekler Hungarians. Ruthenian eggs are also in general geometrical in decoration, while Servian eggs are decorated in many colours, and have usually animal or vegetable subjects, which are, however, often so conventionalized that their origin is not easily recognizable. The same greater brilliance in colour, combined with less artistic value, distinguishes the Servian from the Roumanian national costume.

A selection of forty Roumanian designs, (a number which it would have been easy to multiply several times), is shown

Plate XVII.


To face p. 300.

in Plates XIV. to XVIII. Nos. 25-32 and 36-40 have been chosen from Colecție de Ouă Incondeiate by Madame Panaitescu, and Nos. 1 to 8 and 33 from an article by A. Tzigara-Samurcaş in Convorbiri Literare for April, 1907. The remaining illustrations are from eggs in my own collection. Amongst the Roumanians of the kingdom, flowers, and, still more, leaves, are everywhere the most common designs, but this is not indicated proportionately in the Plates. A great affection for leaves is a very marked characteristic of the peasant. Nearly all his songs begin Frunză verde de stejar or de salcâm (Oh! green leaf of the oak-tree, or of the acacia), or Foaie verde merişor (Oh! green leaf of the little apple), etc., as the case may be. Nos. I and 2 show different representations of fir needles (brăduleț, a diminutive form of brad, the Roumanian name for the fir). The fir is much used by the Macedonian Roumanians also. The oak-leaf (frunză de stejar. No. 11), is much beloved, and other leaves often seen are the strawberry (frunză căpşunii, Nos. 15, 16, and 38), lime, beech, walnut, clover (trifoi, No. 13), lilac, acacia (salcâm. No. 12). Apple and strawberry blossoms, violets, campanulas, and snowdrops are common floral designs. Those illustrated are No. 3, a flower without a name (floarea fără nume), No. 27, little flowers (floricele), and No. 24, Easter flowers (floarea paştilor). The last of these designs is not Roumanian in character, but is typical of the tea-tray style of flowery pattern which, especially in embroidery, is ousting the old national patterns.

Fruits, such as cherries (No, 14), bramble berries, etc., are also common subjects. Designs from the animal kingdom are perhaps less important, although few are commoner and have more variations than the cock's comb (creasta de cocoş, No. 9), which, however, is also known as the turkey's tail (coada curcei). The spider (păiangenul, No. 21), mole cricket (coropişnita, Gryllus gryllotalpa. No. 4), staghorn beetle (rudaşcă, Lucanus cervus, Nos. 18 and 19), butterfly, bee, snail, frog, serpent's skin (pielea şarpelui, No. 5), ram's horn, boar's tusks (colțu porcului, No. 17), serpent (șarpele, No. 20), octopus (caracatița, No. 22), hen and chickens (cloşca cu pui, No. 31), little storks (pui de barzā, No. 32), hare's ear (urechea epurelui, No. 37), eye teeth of a pig (colțu porcului, No. 39), and peacock's tail, may also be mentioned. Among the Roumanians of Macedonia both the dove and the serpent are common. Anthropomorphic designs are not known among the Roumanians of the kingdom, but among the Roumanians of Macedonia Adam and Eve form a common design. Among the latter also eggs are decorated with the patterns used for embroidering the national costume, but this is not the case with the Roumanians of the kingdom, who have, however, a whole series of inanimate subjects, such as the ploughshare (fierul plugului, No. 7), the hoe (grebla, No. 26), the wheel of the plough (roata plugului, No. 29), the shepherd's crook (cârligu ciobanului, No. 30), holy bread, such as is given to dying persons (prescură, No. 8), a window (fereastra. No. 10), and pieces of bread (codricei. No. 34). Other miscellaneous designs illustrated are Nos. 25 (mânăstire, a monastery), 28 (iarba mielului, the grass that the lamb eats), 35 (mânăstire, a monastery), 36 (palma, the palm), 33 (calea incurcată sau drumul robilor, the devious way or the path of the slaves, a sort of labyrinth),[3] and 40 (mâna milogului, the hand of the beggar).

The designs are arranged on the eggs in various ways. The "path of the slaves" (No. 33) takes up the whole surface, and some other large designs take up half the egg, e.g. the mole cricket (No. 4), so that the figure appears only twice on the egg,—but it is more usual to repeat the design four or eight times. The fir appears twice in No. 2, but eight times in No. 1. The goose's feet on an egg from the district of Buzău (No. 23), and another from the district of Curtea de Argeş (No. 6), and the ploughshare (No. 7), are

Plate XVIII.


To face p. 302.

characteristic examples of division into eight. The serpent's skin (No. 5) is an example of the more unusual division into sixteen, and the strawberry leaf (No. 16) of the still more unusual division into twelve. The serpent (No. 20) shows a continuous pattern covering the whole surface of the egg, and No. 26 a discontinuous pattern consisting of a number of little hoes dotted over the surface of the egg.

It is not surprising to find that in different villages, or even at times in the same village, the same subject is treated in different ways. For example, Nos. 1 and 2 both represent fir needles, Nos. 18, 19, and perhaps 21, the stag-horn beetle, Nos. 25 and 35 a monastery, Nos. 6 and 23 a goose's foot, Nos. 17 and 39 the canines of a pig, and Nos. 15, 16, and 38 strawberry leaves.

It is perhaps less to be expected that the same design should bear a variety of different names, but in practice the names of the designs are somewhat loosely attached. On talking with a girl highly skilled in the preparation of eggs, I found her to be quite vague as to the names of quite twenty per cent, at least of her own eggs. She said, for instance, that No. 9 might equally well be a cock's comb or the tail of a turkey. No. 21, called by her a spider, is called by Madame Panaitescu a staghorn beetle. No. 34 is called by Tzigara Samurcaş pieces of bread, and by Madame Panaitescu a cock; with the apices of the triangles rounded off a little, the design becomes fish in a (basketwork) net (peştele in coteț). No. 35, the monastery, could with the most insignificant changes stand for a violet (micşunele), the nest of the ortolan (cuibul crângului, Emberyza hortulana), or the leaf of Acer campestre (frunsă jugastrului). It might have been thought that No. 33, the labyrinth, was a design to which the imaginative might have been able to affix a variety of names, but I have found the design in many parts of Roumania, and always with the same name.

Agnes Murgoei.

  1. For variants of the legend of the roasted cock which crew, and its attribution to its earliest known source in a Greek MS. of the Gospel of Nicodemus, see Child, Ballads (4to edit.), vol. i. No. 22, p. 241. Prof. Child does not give this version of the story.
  2. Compare the account in vol. xvi., pp. 53-4 (Plate IV.), of the Easter eggs prepared by the Ruthenian Huculs, who live in Pokutia, near the borders of Hungary and Bukowina.
  3. This is the Roumanian name for the Milky Way.