Decorated egg shells have been found at archeological digs as far back as the Neanderthals some 60,000 years ago. The practice has been found in ancient Egypt as well as in many other places around the world. Since the Neanderthals didn’t leave any written materials, we cannot know for certain what their eggs were for. Archeologists believe they were used to store things and note that not only did different eggs have different decorations, but also that the intricacies of the design changed over time. Neat!
Ornately decorated ostrich eggs, using materials like lapis lazuli, are found in Iraq dating about 5,000 years ago.
4,000 years ago, in ancient Egypt, decorated eggs were adorned with gold and silver and placed in tombs. They were also used as household storage items.
Decorated eggs as part of early Christian practices may have started in Mesopotamia.
In Slavic cultures such as Croatia, Ukraine and Poland, egg decorating traditions, including pysanka, started in pre-Christian times and were rolled into Christian celebrations. The method is similar to batik. Wax is used to block some portions of the egg from receiving dye and later removed. Some of the colors and symbols used are:
triangles symbolizing water, earth, air and later the holy trinity
the Grand Goddess, a matriarchal symbol representing birth and renewal
circles symbolize the cycles or the earth, seasons, and universe
swastika symbolizes happiness and good luck
dots represent stars or things without a beginning and end
leaves and branches symbolize strength and growth
butterflies symbolize the fun of childhood
birds symbolize spring
white represents new life, purity and light
yellow represents celestial moon and stars
red represents life-giving blood, love and joy, and the hope of marriage.
green represents new vegetation in the spring and renewal
blue symbolizes the sky, and good health
brown represents the richness of the soil
black symbolizes the world of the afterlife in a positive light
In Poland, similar traditions of decorating include treated wax pisanki (like batik), gluing shiny paper or fabric onto eggs (like Mod Podge) or etching an already dyed egg to reveal the white shell below.
In Iran, Western and Central Asia and other parts of the world, a New Year holiday called NowRuz is celebrated on the Vernal Equinox. Originating in Zoroastrian, it is now more or less a secular holiday. (Quick note, Zoroastrian shares the myth of the virgin birth of a savior(s) who is the son of god bringing judgment, resurrection of the dead and eternal life). Among other traditions, many families include decorated eggs as a symbol of fertility and new life.
In Egypt, Sham Ennessim celebrates the beginning of spring with, among other things, colored eggs. This holiday is the evolution of Shemu, the 1st-century celebration of spring.
In some regions, red is a common color for eggs in Christianity. Some say it symbolizes the blood of Jesus. There are several stories around the resurrection of Jesus where eggs turn red although none are referenced in the Bible.
Some of the most famous, slightly more contemporary decorated eggs, are Fabergé eggs. In 1885, Tsar Alexander III commissioned an egg as a gift for his wife, Empress Maria Feodorovna. Intended as an Easter gift, this may also have doubled as a gift to celebrate 20 years since their engagement. This was the first is a series of 54 jeweled eggs made for the Russian Imperial family. Each one had a hidden surprise mechanism such as something hidden inside or a pop-up surprise. (To put this into historical perspective, the children of this marriage would result in Nicholas II, the Russian Revolution resulting in his abdication and later murder. Alexander and Maria’s grand-daughter is the famous Anastasia.)
Decorated eggs were also part of Spring celebrations in Germany and it is likely that these are the traditions that made their way to North America.