It is a fairly safe guess that our forebears, blessed with less information but more fantasy, wisdom, and poesy, were rather awed by the egg’s mystery.
How was it possible, the ancients might have asked themselves, that out of a chalky wafer-thin vessel and its sticky contents real life could break forth? Did God present the observer here with a clear and overwhelming proof of his omnipotent presence? Could it be that he himself hid as an eternal spark within the thin shell? (What an incredible thought!) Were God and egg of the same essence?
Then it can be hardly surprising that some of antiquity’s most important personages hatched out of an egg.
Take the Chinese Pangu, who burst forth from an egg and then set about creating the world. Or Brahma, an Indian deity, who was born from a golden egg and afterward created the world. Ra, a falcon-headed god of the Egyptians, originated from an egg and then sailed the sun disc every day in his ship of papyrus from horizon to horizon, which is an amazingly beautiful concept.
From Swans to Easter Eggs
The Dioscuri Castor and Pollux, roving twins of Hellenic origin with a habit of abducting voluptuous damsels, as seen in Rubens’s marvelous canvases, are an interesting example of the egg birth because their mother was the calm and beautiful Leda. Seduced by Zeus himself in the disguise of a swan, she must have been fairly overwhelmed—not so much by his song but by his majestic grace, since he commanded, genetically speaking, the best references possible.
The egg laid by Leda contained not one yolk but two, and the resulting twins, by the way, stand symbolically for an intrinsic psychological phenomenon: the lifelong battle of our inner angel with our inner devil. Both can be found, expressively sculptured, on the façade of Christendom’s marvelous font of wisdom, Notre Dame of Paris. The same perception is expressed in the Far Eastern yin and yang.
The ancient Greeks saw the heavenly dome as the inside of an eggshell and themselves, a most perplexing observation, as unborn or unfinished within. Whereby the shell consisted of seven layers or spheres that needed to be opened one after the other in order to attain enlightenment and eternal life.
The Christian custom of hiding painted eggs for children on Easter Sunday may be based on old lore in which the opening of Christ’s tomb is compared to the hatching of a chick (and the chick itself compared to a pilgrim).
The Egg in Art
In the world of the fine arts, the egg has been used in manifold variations. William Blake’s (1757–1827) little angel has just done what we all dream of: He breaks out of his confinement and gazes with a wondrous expression at the world as if he sees it for the first time in all its splendor.
In Hieronymus Bosch’s (1450–1516) triptych “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” an egg can be found perched atop a head in the absolute center of this fantastic and incredibly complex extravagance.
In another amazing detail of the same painting, human beings are seen entering an egg, which could mean that they have regained the state of innocence and so are able to reunite with their Creator.
A particularly fine example of using the egg as an artistic metaphor is “The Oberried Altar” by Hans Holbein the Younger (1497–1543). There it shines by night as a pale moon and blazes during the day as a bright sun for the poor shepherds and the wise Magi, for whose sovereign, as an ideal, it serves as a radiant crown.
“The Brera Madonna” by Piero della Francesca (1420–1492) has it floating, in one of the most grandiose representations ever painted, above the Virgin and her child. That the egg is suspended on a thin thread from a large seashell—possibly the one in which Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, was born—suggests the theme can be elevated to a metaphor of far-flung significance. Perhaps the Hellenic myth merges with Christian canon into a resplendent doctrine, suggesting that the highest possible wisdom attainable within a human lifespan is the wisdom of Love. It also offers another explanation as to why in Catholic churches the holy water at the entrance is kept in a vessel that has the form of a seashell.
These are just a few interesting observations as to the use and essence of that divine invention called the egg. They might help you to recall the power of expression, awareness of beauty, and the depth of thought and feeling that our Indo-European culture has accumulated in its long and glorious history.
Manfred von Pentz previously worked in advertising, graphic design, and real estate development. Now a writer and painter, he is the author of novels such as “The Crimson Goddess.” His artwork can be found at ManfredVonPentz.net