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Easter eggs

The unknown history and symbolism of Easter Eggs

Cadbury popularised the chocolate Easter Egg in 1905 | Image: Shutterstock

To fully grasp the concept of the Easter Egg, we need to understand the importance of eggs in human history. It’s fair to say their significance is hard to overeggstimate or eggsagerate...I’m really, really sorry.

In all probability, birds’ eggs have been eaten since the dawn of human civilisation. The Sumerians, Egyptians, and Romans all enjoyed them cooked in a variety of ways. However, eggs are also imbued with a complex symbology that arose from their paradoxical status as an object that both sustains and contains life. In addition to the questionable provenience of their existence (does anyone really know what came first?), it’s not hard to understand why some ancient civilisations established entire religions around something so profound as the not-so-humble egg.

In Ancient Greek, Phanes, who created all the other gods, hatched from an egg, as did the quasi-omnipotent Egyptian sun god, Ra. In Chinese mythology, Pangu created the sky and Earth from his split egg and in Sanskrit, the Brahmanda Purana uses an egg on which to base the cosmos. In Paganism, the egg, through a practice known as ‘Oomancy’, was believed to be able to predict the future and even rid some poor souls of the curse of the evil eye. All of this is before we've even unwrapped the incredible physical properties of the egg, wherein lies a perfect contradiction: why is an egg so incredibly strong and so fragile?

The top and bottom of an egg are similar in shape to a three-dimensional arch, one of the strongest known architectural forms, which is why a hen can sit on one without breaking it. According to Harvard University, a properly positioned egg can easily withstand the weight of the average human male, and then some. But tap it gently on the side, and they instantly crack, a cunning design to allow the pecking chicks to escape their former home.

So, eggs aren’t just perfect symbolically, they’re also perfect physically, which is why no other single object demands the same sense of wonderment as an egg. They also have countless other uses as an adhesive, fertilizer, cosmetic, conditioner, paint, or photography medium (I really could go on), in addition to the multiple ways of being enjoyed as a foodstuff.

It’s no surprise then that eggs are occasionally treated with a little bit of respect and given a makeover. They have been decorated by humans for a considerably longer time than you might think. The practice started 60,000 years ago, predating early European humans by about 15,000 years. Evidence of this lies in the discovery of decorated ostrich eggshells that had probably been used as water containers in the Western Cape of South Africa.

Apart from telling us how important the egg was in one of the earliest-known human societies, the decorations on the egg act as a sort-of camera into the Stone Age mindset, providing us with some details about how our ancestors saw themselves in relation to their universe, not to mention their levels of cognitive intelligence.

Underpinning that, are the decorated eggs that define Sham Ennessim, one of the oldest festivals in human history (2,700 BC). Held every Easter Sunday in Egypt, the festival originally celebrated spring, before later becoming part of the commonly accepted traditions of Easter. This may explain how eggs become associated with Easter as opposed to Easter being associated with eggs. Or putting it another way, eggs are seldom discussed in the Bible and certainly not as a symbol of resurrection, though Christians see them as such during Easter.

So, from the ancient to the present, via paganism and the Middle Ages (Edward I's 1307 household accounts notes: ‘18 pence for 450 eggs to be boiled and dyed or covered with gold leaf and distributed to the Royal household’) eggs have been decorated. The most extravagant examples have been made by Carl Fabergé, originally as an Easter gift, for Empress Marie of Russia in 1883.

For the rest of us mere mortals, it was inevitable that egg decoration would go beyond the infuriating annual process of battling a boiled egg with felt tip-pens. Arguably, as a result of the 18th-century fashion of filling papier-mâché eggs with gifts and wrapping them with fancy materials, they finally became immortalised in chocolate. The fashion for chocolate eggs took off in 1875 with John Cadbury (yes that Cadbury) who revolutionised the chocolate-making process.

While chocolate eggs had originated in the 19th century in France and Germany, Cadbury's innovative production method that let him mould cocoa butter into smooth shapes, streamlined the egg-making process. Now chocolate eggs could be produced at scale for the mass market. And so the modern Easter egg as we know it was born, or should we say hatched?