Fresh green leaves, flowers and, in the countryside, baby animals surround us at springtime. Perhaps this seasonal emphasis on new life explains why the egg became an Easter symbol. In cultures from around the world, both past and present, the egg serves as a token of new life. This symbolism extends far beyond Christian lands, and in fact predates the existence of Christianity. Among some Christians, the egg has become an Easter symbol representing the concept of resurrection.
In some societies the egg came to represent much more than new life. It became an emblem of the mysterious source from which sprang the world, the universe, and life itself. An ancient Egyptian myth about the creation of the world states that in the beginning the earth god, Geb, joined with the sky goddess, Nut. Together they produced an egg, out of which hatched the entire universe. From this egg also sprang the phoenix, an immortal bird which later became a symbol of Christ. Another Egyptian myth asserts that the creator god, Khnum, took a lump of mud from the Nile river, put it on his potter’s wheel, and spun it into an egg. The world emerged from this egg. Another old Egyptian legend recounts that the chief of all the gods, Ptah, sat down before a potter’s wheel and created a golden egg out of which hatched the sun and the moon.
In ancient India early proponents of the Hindu religion claimed that the “world egg” took shape in the waters of chaos that existed before the creation of the world. The egg gave birth to Prajapati, the father of all the gods, human beings, and other creatures. Another version of the myth states that the egg itself gave birth to the world. One half of the shell became the earth, the other half the sky. In yet another variation of the tale Prajapati creates the world egg from his own sweat. The upper half of the egg encloses the sky and the lower half the earth.
The idea that the world emerged from an egg has also found expression in myths and tales from ancient Greece, Phoenicia, Iran, Indonesia, Latvia, Estonia, Finland, west Africa, Central America, and western South American.
Where did our world come from? How did living creatures come into being? The above legends attempt to answer these questions. Perhaps they represent this process as the hatching of an egg because the egg, which does not appear to be alive itself, eventually breaks open and brings forth new life.
Sacrifice, Fertility, and Magic
Many folk customs concerning eggs emphasize their association with life and with the creation of new life. For example, egg sacrifices have been found in many different cultures. Folklorists speculate that the close association made between eggs and life may have inspired these sacrificial customs, the eggs serving in some way as a substitute for other living creatures. Some European folk traditions taught that the spirits guarding homes, rivers, or other parts of the landscape demanded a sacrifice of eggs before they permitted humans to pass through or dwell there. If they didn’t receive this sacrifice, they took revenge by causing accidents and other mishaps.
Fertility rituals often include eggs. In many European lands farmers once left them in fields and pastures to increase the harvest and the number of offspring borne by farm animals. In some parts of Germany, Holland, and Belgium villagers celebrated a festival called Kirmis or Kerwe during the summer. In many locations this festival featured the construction of a large crown of eggs hung over the town’s main streets. This decoration remained in place until the summer crops were in. Many egg charms designed to increase human fertility have also been recorded by folklorists.
In European folklore eggs often serve as important ingredients in magical spells. All across the continent, including such diverse countries as France, Holland, Sweden, Portugal, the former Yugoslavia, and Russia, folk tradition teaches that witches use discarded eggshells to travel to their midnight gatherings. By means of a spell the eggshell is made to serve as some kind of vehicle, often a boat. Perhaps their association with the creation of life itself suggested to the superstitious that they could become potent elements in magical practices.
Soul Transfers and Mourning
Certain folk beliefs and customs surrounding grief and mourning as well as those concerning methods of magically evading death also reveal the powerful cultural connections made between eggs and life. Folklore from many corners of Europe taught that supernatural creatures could empty the source of their strength into an egg or even hide their soul there. After making this transfer they usually hid the egg in some unusual place, often inside the body of another animal. After that, the only way to diminish their powers or to kill them was to find the egg and break it. Folktales describing these kinds of soul transfers have been collected from Ireland, Iceland, and Italy, as well as Brittany in northern France, Bohemia in the Czech Republic, and Lapland, or Saamiland, which extends across the northernmost territories of Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Russia’s Kola Peninsula.
Studies of traditional funeral practices in many different cultures reveals that rituals associated with burial and mourning often include eggs. Eggs are served at Jewish funerals as a reminder of the continuity of life. Real eggs, or marble facsimiles, have been found inside ancient English burial sites as well as ancient Greek and Roman tombs. In past times mourners in Russia and the Balkans placed eggs on top of graves. Russian folklore also recommended leaving a dish of fried eggs beside graves or underneath the birch trees said to be inhabited by the spirits of the dead. Venetia Newell, author of an extensive study of egg folklore, concludes that in these contexts eggs serve as symbols of resurrection, or life after death. These funeral eggs may represent the idea that although death appears to be final, the apparently lifeless body in fact gives birth to the immortal soul.