Ostrich Eggs and Coptic Easter

On Easter in much of the Christian world, believers celebrate Jesus’ resurrection by painting chicken eggs in various colors. The tradition is old and has been extensively secularized, enjoyed now without a necessary reference to faith.

In Egypt it is the same; one day after Easter is Shem al-Naseem, an ancient Pharaonic holiday enjoyed by both Muslims and Christians. Both enjoy painting eggs and other traditions that are not as common in the West, such as eating near-raw, salty fish. It is good not everything translates across cultures.

But imagine the artistry – or, envisioning children, the mess – if an ostrich egg was used instead. A bigger canvas invites more elaborate design, as seen in this egg hung from a church in the Monastery of St. Bishoy in Wadi Natroun.

Bishoy Ostrich Egg

St. Bishoy is the one pictured, washing the feet of Jesus according to one of the Coptic traditions. It is hung today in front of the altar as a reminder of God. This is common in many Coptic churches and meshes with other Egyptian traditions carried over into the Christian era.

Four ostrich eggs hung from the church in St. Makarios Monastery in Wadi Natroun.
Four ostrich eggs hung from the church in St. Makarios Monastery in Wadi Natroun.

In ancient Egyptian mythology the ostrich had an association with Amenti, the jackal-headed goddess of the dead. The egg in many cultures symbolizes easily the emergence of life from death, and the Coptic church took it as a pointer toward resurrection. Additionally the ostrich was believed to hatch her eggs through intense staring and concentration, a fitting description of the spiritual life and the attitude of worship recommended at mass.

So if you paint your eggs this Easter, wherever you are, cherish your own traditions, marvel at others, and remember how much we share without even knowing it.

The opening picture and much research for this post are received with thanks to Viveka Anderton.