History of egg

The egg is in folk and mythological imagination the symbol of life.

The Egg Day is celebrated every second Friday of October. This was designated by the International Egg Commission with the purpose, to remember or discover how many useful ingredients are contained in the egg and how many benefits it provides to our health. This little outstanding food contains many useful nutritional ingredients.

 From very old times it was the symbol of fertility and the creation of new life. Even today, it is offered to new couples as a symbol of creation or the newlyweds break it before they enter their new home, to bring them fortune and offspring. They called it the food of the spring, since hens laid little eggs in winter and their production was higher in spring. Today, it has become a basic ingredient in the gastronomic traditions of many peoples and it is consumed in all seasons of the year. For reasons related to faith and worship, other peoples like the Hindus avoid eating eggs, since they view them as a sacred source of life.

 The egg is connected to ancient myths and traditions.

In Greek mythology, according to a version, Night and Aether gave birth to a silver egg, obviously the moon. From this egg emerged Eros who brought order to everything and created the infinite Chaos high in the sky and Gaia on earth below. While according another myth, Leda, from her unison with Zeus, gave birth to an egg from which emerged Dioskouroi. Furthermore, in Greek antiquity they used to place eggs in the hands of Dionysus’ figurines as the symbols of rebirth. In Finnish mythology, the world was created from the explosion of a wild duck’s egg: the sky was the higher layer of the egg, which was supported by a pillar in the North Pole, under the Polar Star.

In Chinese mythology, the world was created from a cosmic egg. The yolk is the sky and the white is the earth. During the creation of the world, the Cosmic Egg opened and the two halves formed the sky and the earth. It floated in the colorless space and it contained the opposite forces of yin and yang. After centuries of incubation the first creature came to life.

 In ancient eastern religions, eggs are the symbol of creation which is connected to the spring festivities for rebirth and revitalization. Much later, they were connected with Easter, and as a Christian symbol, they symbolize the Resurrection. In Sanskrit, the sacred language of India, it is written that the cosmic egg contained the eternal spirit that is born, dies and is reborn eternally. The Egyptians believed that the god Ptah created the egg from the sun and the moon. The Phoenicians believed that the sky and the earth were born inside a huge egg which was divided in two. In China egg offers are customary in spring for fertility and rebirth. Because of its connection with new life, the egg has been often considered as an aphrodisiac or a symbol of fertility. Peasants in Central Europe used to scrub an egg on the blade of the plow with the hope that it would improve their crops, whereas in France it is customary for the bride to break an egg on the doorstep of the new home, before entering it, to ensure many offspring. For the Jews by contrast, eggs is bereavement food – that is, a food in which life has not completed, something we also encounter in Mesopotamian peoples, where they offer eggs to the dead. From prehistoric times our ancestors consumed eggs from various species of birds. They included in their nutrition – in addition to birds’ eggs – those of turtles and alligators. In the era of hunters-gatherers, men who brought food «despoiled nests» and gathered eggs from ducks, geese, guinea fowls, pigeons, quails, even ostriches. Eggs were collected from any bird species and they were a good food, when no meat was available. In other words, this was a way to cope with the lack of animal proteins.

However, the time period when the domestication of birds started for the consumption of eggs, is unknown. A number of Indian historical writings report that the chicken was already domesticated in 3,200 B.C. In Egyptian and Chinese writings it is reported that chicken hens were giving their eggs to man from 1,400 B.C. In Antiquity, the Phoenicians preferred ostrich eggs, whereas the Romans consumed apart from chicken eggs, also goose, pheasant and blue peacock eggs. The Chinese preferred chicken and pigeon eggs, but they also consumed eggs from other birds. The ancient Persians and Celts celebrated vernal equinox by giving away red eggs. The eggs were shared during the meal, and then, they broke carefully the shell as if they eradicated the days of bad weather. It was a ritual that took place to dismiss winter and welcome the new life brought by spring and light. The ancient Greeks raised ducks, geese, quails and chicken to obtain eggs. A number of writers report of pheasant and Egyptian goose eggs, however we can assume that they were rare delicacies. Eggs were consumed either soft or hard boiled as an appetizer or a dessert. Moreover, both the egg yolk and white were ingredients of various recipes. Galenus writes that the most useful eggs to man are those derived from chicken and pheasants, whereas he did not think much of those from the ostrich and the goose.

The god Dionysus holding Alektor and an egg, the symbols of psyche and rebirth

In ancient Rome they also used to consume eggs, as in ancient Greece. However, despite the fact that the famous Roman gastronomer Apicius proposes, in his book, various cooking recipes with eggs (flans and omelettes), the consumption of eggs remained low. This is attributed to religious beliefs, but also to superstitions, however the main reasons must have been economic. People at that time appreciated that it was more profitable to wait until the egg «transformed» to a hen or a rooster. The Chinese were the exception to this rule, who considered the egg as an excellent nutritional source and therefore, its use was high in the whole of Eastern Asia. From the Middle Ages, no text has been maintained in Europe, in which there is mention of the egg. Perhaps, because – like meat – its consumption is prohibited by the Catholic Church on the days of fast, that is, for more than 160 days a year. Of course, chicken do not follow the religious calendar, but that of seasons and their life cycle. Therefore, during the Lent season, which is a period in which daylight is plentiful again, they laid a lot of eggs. They kept these eggs in liquid fat or in wax until Easter, when they could be consumed for this special day to be celebrated. They took care however, to improve their appearance after their stay in the cellar for several days and decorate them as beautifully as they could. This habit became one of the favorite traditions, followed by the rich and the poor. The last days of winter were dedicated to the decoration of spring eggs. By the time of the 16th century, in the circles of aristocracy, they were calling high-profile artists of the time to paint the eggs, which was a symbolic Easter present  between lovers, friends or to the lord of the region or the king. 

The popularity of the Easter egg reached to untold heights in the court of the Czar of Russia. By the end of the 19th century, the court jeweler, Carl Fabergé, created magnificent eggs made of gold, crystal and porcelain. In total, 54 Faberge eggs were created by the time of the revolution, completely different from each other! After the revolution the government banned the creation of valuables and Peter Carl Faberge was sent to exile in Lausanne, where he lived the remaining years of his life. Till today, in many civilizations eggs are decorated by hand, they are exchanged as gifts for springtime, while they play a very important role in a lot of religious traditions. In the mid-fifteenth century, in Europe, the chicken egg gradually took the lead over all the others. We believe that the chicken hens that are used today for the production of eggs are the descendants of the chickens that arrived from America on Christopher Columbus’ ship and it seems that they derived from Asia. In the 18th century, Louis XV, who adored eggs «a la coque» and meringues, had built a large hennery in Versailles. The hens were going round everywhere and they laid plenty of eggs on a daily basis, which were used for the needs of the palace. Menon, Marshal Soubise’s maître d’hôtel, at the time of Louis XV, author of «Nouveau traité de la cuisine» (1793), said about the egg: «it is an exceptionally nutritional food, which can be enjoyed by the healthy and the sick, the rich and the poor». At the same time the technique of «artificial brooding» that was applied by the Egyptians becomes known in Europe, and in the 19th century hens arrive in Europe from Asia that were distinguished more for their egg productivity rather than their tasty meat. Therefore, egg production is increased significantly. The egg finds again the scientific place it deserves among foods and is considered as nature’s gift to man’s nutrition.

 The colored eggs

 From antiquity, the Chinese, the Persians, the Greeks and the Egyptians had the tradition to dye the eggs with various colors, to offer them to relatives and friends. In Ukraine this tradition continues even today. It is reported that it has its origins in the civilization of the Persians 5,000 years ago. In the Middle Ages, the royal families exchanged eggs dyed gold. In Greece, the most known colored eggs are the red Easter eggs. Easter eggs have many symbolisms. They are usually dyed on Holy Thursday. Many traditions accompany the red Easter eggs. We break them by tapping each other, after the Resurrection, representing the end of darkness in the grave and the liberation of life and hope.