The Latin proverb Omne vivum ex ovo best sums up how the egg over centuries and civilizations, has become intrinsically linked to birth, spring, and the renewal of life. From ancient India to Polynesia; from Iran, Greece, and Phonecia to Latvia, Estonia, and Finland; from Central America to the west coast of South America, creation myths often use the egg to describe the birth of the entire universe.
While the Christian Easter holiday has appropriated the egg to symbolize Christ’s resurrection, the veneration of the egg has journeyed through many incarnations and has been honored by many cultures.
In Europe an egg was hung on New Year trees, on maypoles, and on St. John’s trees in midsummer — meant to symbolize the egg as a regenerative force of nature. Later during the Christian period, it was believed that eggs laid on Good Friday, if kept for a hundred years, would have their yolks turn to diamonds. If Good Friday eggs were cooked on Easter they would promote the fertility of the trees and crops and protect against sudden death. And, if two yolks were found in an Easter egg, the legend said wealth was on the way.
Before the egg became closely entwined with the Christian Easter, it was honored during many rite-of-Spring festivals. The Romans, Gauls, Chinese, Egyptians and Persians all cherished the egg as a symbol of the universe. From ancient times eggs were dyed, exchanged and shown reverence. The Persians of that time gave eggs as gifts at the vernal equinox. The egg, therefore, was believed to have special powers. It was buried under the foundations of buildings to ward off evil; pregnant young Roman women carried an egg on their persons to foretell the sex of their unborn children; French brides stepped upon an egg before crossing the threshold of their new homes.
Old Polish legends blended folklore and Christian beliefs and firmly attached the egg to the Easter celebration. One legend concerns the Virgin Mary. It tells of the time Mary gave eggs to the soldiers at the cross. She entreated them to be less cruel and she wept. The tears of Mary fell upon the eggs, spotting them with dots of brilliant color. Another Polish legend tells of when Mary Magdalene went to the sepulcher to anoint the body of Jesus. She had with her a basket of eggs to serve as an offering. When she arrived at the sepulcher and uncovered the eggs, the pure white shells had miraculously taken on a rainbow of colors.
It is speculated that dying eggs for the Easter feast was introduced in Europe, or, rather Western Europe, during the course of the 15th century during the Crusades after crusaders had been in Persia and seen eggs painted for other celebrations. With the advent of Christianity the symbolism of the egg changed to represent, not nature’s rebirth, but the rebirth of man. Christians embraced the egg symbol and likened it to the tomb from which Christ rose.
The elaboration of egg design is perhaps best known in the Fabergé company of Russia which began designing eggs in 1884, first commissioned as a romantic gift for Czarina Maria from her husband, Czar Alexander. The egg reminded the empress of her homeland, and so from then on it was agreed that Fabergé would make an Easter egg each year for Maria. Faberge designed Easter eggs for another 11 years until Alexander III died. It was agreed that the Easter gift would always have an egg shape and would hold a surprise. These projects became top priority for the company and were planned and worked on far in advance — a year or longer. The surprise was always kept secret.
The egg is nature’s perfect package. It has, during the span of history, represented mystery, magic, medicine, food and omen. It is the universal symbol of Easter celebrations throughout the world and has been dyed, painted, adorned and embellished in the celebration of its special symbolism.