EGG . The egg has aroused feelings of wonder in cultures all over the world. Its smooth, elliptical shell conceals the mystery of new life in formation. The sight of an egg hatching and a young creature bursting out from an apparently lifeless object stimulated ancient peoples to think about the creative process. It would have been difficult for early humans to understand an abstraction such as the creation of the world, but they could watch a similar process in the hatching of an egg. Thus the egg became an important symbol in creation stories.
The concept of a world egg that hatched the first creator appears in many early myths. The Harris Magical Papyrus, an Egyptian manuscript of the New Kingdom period (1569–1085 bce), contains the earliest known reference to a world egg emerging from the primeval waters. Several Egyptian deities are associated with the egg: Thoth, god of the moon; the sun god, Re; the celestial goose, Seb, god of the earth; Ptah of Memphis; and Khnum, god of creation, who shaped the world egg on his potter's wheel.
The Hindu Upaniṣads (c. 600–300 bce) describe the first act of creation as an egg breaking in two. The Ṛgveda, a body of Hindu hymns, sacrificial formulas, and incantations collected in the first millennium bce, speaks of Prajāpati, Lord of Creation, who fertilizes the waters of creation, which change into a golden egg. Inside sits the golden figure of Brahma, floating in the primeval waters for a thousand years, his golden light shining through seven shells. Land, sea, mountains, planets, gods, and humankind are all inside the egg with him.
In Chinese legend Pangu, the first man, emerged from the cosmic egg, as did Sun Wukong, the popular monkey king of Daoist and Buddhist legend.
Oceania has many stories of the origin of humankind from eggs. The divine bird laid one on the water, according to the Sandwich Islanders, and their islands hatched from its shell. Fijians attribute the origin of humans to Ngendei, who nurtured the world egg, and tribes in southeastern Australia believe the sun emerged from an emu egg thrown into the air.
In the Jewish tradition, eggs are used on many ceremonial occasions. Lag ba-ʿOmer, a joyful festival honoring the memory of Rabbi Shimʿon bar Yoḥai, falls on the thirty-third day between Passover and Pentecost. Children and their parents picnic with colored eggs. While the pious rabbi lived, God's symbolic rainbow, a sign that he would not destroy the world, was unnecessary. When he died, people needed the rainbow and hastened its coming by dyeing eggs in many colors.
The Seder, or Passover meal, always includes among its ritual foods a roasted egg. This is variously explained as a symbol of the additional sacrifice offered in the Temple at Passover, the sacrifice of travelers, or the departure from Egypt. More likely it signified rebirth, since Jewish mourners are traditionally fed baked eggs.
In the third and fourth centuries of the common era, the Christian church gradually adopted a Lenten fast of forty days commemorating the time Christ spent without food in the wilderness. Pope Gregory the Great (r. 590–604 ce) decreed that all Christians must renounce meat, cheese, butter, milk, and eggs at this time. The Orthodox church was very strict and permitted only the consumption of fruit, vegetables, bread, honey, and nuts. Hence it is not surprising that eggs form an important part of the festival food at Easter.
Easter is a major feast for Orthodox Christians in Russia and other countries of the former Soviet Union, and churches are filled for the midnight Mass. On Easter Sunday the dead are remembered. Hundreds visit the cemeteries to sit by the graves of their loved ones. They consume red eggs and scatter the shells on the soil.
It is not clear when the custom of exchanging eggs at Easter was first established. In his book Easter: Its Story and Meaning (1950), Alan Watts suggests that there are no western European records of Easter eggs prior to the fifteenth century. But the household accounts of the English king Edward I for 1290 record that eighteen pence was spent on decorating Easter eggs with gold leaf for presentation to members of his court. Poles were preparing Easter eggs before the eleventh century, and two goose eggs adorned with stripes and dots were found in a grave at Worms, Germany, dated 320 ce. Scholars are not sure whether this grave was the site of a Christian burial.
For Christians the Easter egg is a symbol of the resurrection of Christ. As a bird breaks out from its shell, so Christ arose from his tomb at the resurrection. In the Middle Ages it was a usual practice to place colored eggs in the replica of the tomb during the Easter service. Sometimes the clergy laid them on the altar as they greeted each other with the words "Christ is risen." This custom was observed in parts of France until the eighteenth century.
In traditional folk religion the egg is a powerful symbol of fertility, purity, and rebirth. It is used in magical rituals to promote fertility and restore virility; to look into the future; to bring good weather; to encourage the growth of the crops and protect both cattle and children against misfortune, especially the dreaded evil eye. All over the world it represents life and creation, fertility and resurrection. It appears at all the major events in the life cycle: birth, courtship, marriage, sickness, and death, as well as during Holy Week and the Easter period. It is the bearer of strength because it contains the seeds of life. In early times eggs were interred with the dead. Later they were linked with Easter. The church did not oppose this, though many egg customs were pre-Christian in origin, because the egg provided a fresh and powerful symbol of the resurrection and the transformation of death into life.
Newall, Venetia. An Egg at Easter: A Folklore Study. Bloomington, Ind., 1971. A comparative treatment of the egg myth from the earliest recorded references until contemporary usage, and a study of the egg's symbolic role in tradition and belief.
Shoemaker, Alfred L. Eastertide in Pennsylvania. Kutztown, Pa., 1960. Provides information about Easter egg customs of the Pennsylvania Dutch community.
Václavík, Antonín. Vyrocni obyceje a lidové umeni. Prague, 1959. A handsomely illustrated volume that shows examples of the ornate Easter eggs prepared in Czechoslovakia. English and Russian summaries of the text are provided.
Weinhold, Gertrud. Das schöne Osterei in Europa. Kassel, 1967. A well-illustrated little book that provides a brief and popularly presented overview of the Easter egg customs in Europe.
Wildhaber, Robert. Wir färben Ostereier. Bern, 1957. An attractive booklet by the late director of the Swiss Folklore Museum, Basel, which contains a large and famous collection of decorated Easter eggs.
Venetia Newall (1987)