The following is a guest blog post by science reference librarian and eggs-pert Margaret Clifton who has been collecting egg art since she was nine years old. Margaret has written for Inside Adams before on the topics of astronomy, Carl Sagan, time and Antarctica.
How do we know when Spring is here? Officially, which is to say astronomically, it’s after the vernal equinox has passed, which is when the sun’s path is directly over the earth’s equator. It is one of two times during the year when day and night are more or less equal, and it is a significant date on calendars around the world. Both Passover and Easter are calculated from this date, which falls between March 19 and 22 (this year on the 20th). In the northern hemisphere it marks the beginning of spring, which means the return of life, and those signs of life are how we know that spring is really here. There will be buds, and flowers, and bees, and, of course, eggs.
A universal symbol of creation is the hatching of an egg. The egg itself figures as an important symbol in many early creation myths across the world, embodying the concepts of birth and rebirth, new life and fertility. The first recorded reference to an egg in a creation myth occurs in an Egyptian papyrus; a reference also appears in the Upanishads (a collection of Vedic texts, which contain the earliest record of some of the central religious concepts of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism). In these texts are descriptions of the act of creation as the cracking of an egg in half. In Nepal where Buddhism and Hinduism are intermingled traditions, the cupola of a Buddhist stupa represents the cosmic egg of creation. In other early creation legends the egg is often associated with the sun, and in China there is a legend that the first being appeared from the cosmic egg; chaos, before creation, existed as an egg containing the essence, or elements, of matter. For more detail on the creation myths and other folklore of eggs see Venetia Newall’s “Easter Eggs” in The Journal of American Folklore, v. 80, no. 315, Jan.-Mar. 1967: 3-32.
Throughout history eggs have been at various times magical, protective, divine — even evil, and they are an obvious fertility symbol. In Buddhist, Taoist and certain Russian rituals they are offered to the dead as representations of the revitalizing powers of nature. In the first century A.D. Christians took the ancient legend of the phoenix (one symbol of the sun to the Egyptians) as a sign of the resurrection[i]; in illustrations the bird stands on the egg from which it has risen. Hence, the Easter egg. The first color used to dye Easter eggs was red, symbolizing blood and its life-giving qualities. For several centuries early Christians observed all the traditional Jewish festivals, and thus Easter and Passover coincided. Colored eggs are also used in some Passover celebrations, but whether it was a tradition borrowed from Christianity or not remains a mystery. In ancient China eggs, dyed scarlet, were given as gifts in the spring.
Beautiful multi-colored and elaborately decorated eggs are a popular folk art across the world. As an egg collector I have accumulated painted eggs, crystal eggs, metalwork eggs, enameled eggs, Washi eggs (Japanese paper art), wood eggs, amber eggs, ceramic eggs, stone eggs, shell eggs, and others of virtually every material you can imagine. Some of the most beautiful are the Pysanky, the batik-method eggs of the Ukraine, in which the designs are “written” in beeswax. For more detail on pysanky and other egg decorating techniques and folklore see the pamphlet “Egg Art,” Library of Congress American Folklife Center (1982).
But perhaps the most beautiful eggs of all are those of the birds of our world; from the Baltimore Oriole to the American Kestrel to the Eastern Meadowlark, nothing compares to these subtle and varied hues found in nature. Evolution has dictated the diversity of the color patterns in the eggshells of birds for various purposes such as mimicry and recognition. It is a form of communication on a level we have only begun to understand. For more on how birds and humans perceive color differently, see Zachary Aidala and Mark E. Hauber’s, “Avian Egg Coloration and Visual Ecology,” in Nature Education Knowledge, v. 3, no. 10, 2010: 53-.
You can find more scientific illustrations and information about oology (study of or collecting of bird eggs) in the Library’s science collections – ask a librarian for suggested resources to begin your research.