Written by Natasha Marinopoulos
Perhaps the most instantly recognisable element of Greek Easter, red eggs (kokkina avga) are rich in symbolism and have been a Greek cultural tradition for centuries. Many Greeks will remember dyeing red eggs with their mothers and grandmothers, shining the eggs with olive oil, and cracking them on Easter Sunday with family. These bright eggs also feature in the centre of the sweet Greek Easter bread, tsoureki.
The symbolism of eggs
In the first century BCE, the Greek philosopher Plutarch first posed the famous question, “Which was first, the bird or the egg?” In Christian traditions, eggs symbolise the tomb of Jesus Christ, closed yet concealing life inside. The cracking of the egg is a representation of the opening of the tomb that held Jesus Christ. This is the reason we eat chocolate Easter eggs today! However, eggs have been a symbol of life, rebirth, and the advent of spring across the world, long before Christianity.
Eggs feature in ancient creation myths from Egypt, India, Persia, Finland, Oceania, China, and Greece. In the ancient Greek Orphic tradition, the god Phanes was formed amongst chaos and darkness within a silver egg, hatched, and then created the world.
The practice of decorating eggs can date as far back as 55,000 years ago in South Africa, where fragments of ostrich eggs painted in black, red, and orange have been found. Decorated ostrich eggs (rhyta) dating from the Bronze Age, have been found in elite Minoan and Mycenaean tombs across Greece. These hollowed eggs were highly regarded and used as ritual drinking vessels. While we do not know the symbolism of these eggs in Bronze Age Greece, in New Kingdom Egypt ostriches were directly connected with the dead as well as the rising of the sun.
While there is no documented first recording of an ‘Easter egg’, it is believed that early Mesopotamian Orthodox Christians first began to dye eggs for Easter as they had for the Zoroastrian New Year, Nowruz, where they had been used as a symbol of fertility for hundreds of years. The use of coloured eggs then spread throughout the Mediterranean and Europe through the Orthodox church, where the tradition continues today.
Why are the eggs dyed red?
There are several traditions behind the choice of the colour red. For many, the red dye represents the blood of Jesus Christ and his sacrifice on the cross. Another explanation comes from a story about Mary Magdalene, in which Emperor Tiberius told her that he would believe in the Resurrection if the basket of eggs she held turned red – which they immediately did. Another story explains that the Virgin Mary turned a basket of eggs red with her tears upon seeing Jesus on the cross. Other reasons include using the colour red as an expression of joy for the Resurrection, or as a repellent against evil.
Traditionally dyed by women of the household on the Thursday before Easter, the eggs were boiled or painted with dye made from vinegar and onion skins, the rizari plant, turmeric, beetroot, or even coffee. Today, the most common way to dye eggs is with commercial red dye. After dyeing, the eggs are often rubbed with olive oil to make them shine.
While often left plain, red eggs can be decorated in a variety of different ways. The most common way is to wrap flowers, herbs, or leaves against the eggs with sheer fabric before boiling the eggs in dye, leaving an imprint on the egg. In Northern Greece, women use a tool called a kondili and beeswax to paint intricate flowers, leaves, birds, or words on each egg. Traditionally, women would begin dyeing and decorating the eggs just after midnight on Thursday and work throughout the day to ensure the eggs were completed before Good Friday. The kondili tool is heated over a candle so the beeswax can slowly drip through like ink. The beeswax is only wiped off after dyeing the eggs, leaving the design behind. Eggs decorated in this way are called perthikes and are similar to Ukrainian pysanky eggs. As well as these traditional decorating methods, many people also now use stickers to decorate their eggs.
On Easter Sunday, the eggs are used for a game called tsougrisma (‘clinking together’). This is either played at the church right after midnight or later in the day during the Easter Sunday feast.
The players will inspect the eggs to try to find the strongest egg for the game. Everyone has their own theories about how to pick the best egg – whether it’s by the depth of its colour, if it’s pointy or round, big, small, heavy or light! Two people will then ‘clink’ the ends of their eggs against each other to see which egg is left intact, then continue to the next person. The person tapping the egg will say ‘Christos Anesti’ (‘Christ has risen’) while the person being tapped will say ‘Alithos Anesti’ (‘Indeed he has risen).
Players are out of the game when both ends of their egg are cracked. The person with the last egg standing is said to have good luck for the year! The eggs are then eaten, and in some families, one egg is kept for the entire year.