In the beginning was the egg …

Which came first, the chicken or the egg? In the cosmogonies, the creation stories, of many cultures, the answer is surprisingly clear: the cosmic egg (also: world egg) is the origin of all things. Or is it not? For who created the cosmic egg?

The myth of a primordial world egg was known in many parts of the world, including Egypt, Zoroastrian Persia, India, China, and Polynesia. For example, in one of the several surviving ancient Egyptian creation myths, primordial deities incubate the first of all eggs, which eventually hatches the creator god in the goose Gengen Wer (“The Great Honker”), who in turn creates the world. It was probably this myth that influenced the world conception of the Greek Orphics. The Orphics were a religious current that was widespread in the middle of the 1st millennium BC, especially in southern Italy, and believed in the transmigration of souls. The Pythagoreans, too, emerged from a similar context and an Orphic sphere of influence. According to Orphic ideas, it is the primordial deity Phanes, hatched from an egg, which creates the world. He is also called Protogonos (“firstborn”) and, in non-Orphic sources, is occasionally equated with Kronos, Dionysos, Mithras or even with Eros. In any case, the egg was sacred to the Orphics as a symbol of the transmigration of souls, which is why they refused to eat eggs.            

It can be assumed that these creation myths in turn fed into similar stories of births of heroes and gods, including that of beautiful Helen hatching from an egg along with her twin brothers Castor and Pollux after their mother Leda was mated by Zeus himself, albeit in the guise of a swan, leading to this rather unusual birth process.

The idea of an original world egg reverberates to this day: The state of the universe before the Big Bang, an absolute compression of mass, has been referred to by some scientists—jokingly, I suppose—as the Cosmic Egg. The symbolism of the egg as a symbol of resurrection has also survived to this day in Christianity: namely, like the Easter egg. Similar customs with coloured eggs are also found in the countries where the ancient Iranian spring festival Nowruz is celebrated. 

As a symbol of life after death, it is not surprising that eggs were also given to the dead as burial gifts: as food in the afterlife on the one hand and as a symbol of life on the other. In the world of classical antiquity, especially in southern Italy, not only eggshells but also clay eggs were found in tombs. Representations of eggs in a mythical context can also be found on painted Apulian vessels. Egg models were found in several tombs in Metaponto, today on the border between Basilicata and Puglia, at that time an important centre of the Pythagoreans. It is from there that we also have a small stone egg with a woman peeping out, probably representing Helen while hatching. It is now in the archaeological museum in Metaponto.

Eggs are both food and medicine. Not only chicken eggs (by the way, the chicken came to Europe only in the 1st millennium BC), but also quail, duck, goose and other bird eggs were and are consumed, not to mention fish roe and, especially in Puglia, a much sought-after delicacy, sea urchin roe. Thus, according to the second book of Athenaeus’ Deipnosophistae, Heracleides of Taranto recommends consuming all kinds of eggs, together with that of snails, as semen-producing, that is, life-giving. Asclepius, the Greek god of healing, was sometimes depicted not only with the usual snake coiled around his staff but occasionally with an egg as a symbol of new life and thus of healing. 

This leaves us, before proceeding to the actual consumption of eggs, to discuss one more subject: that of the egg oracle. The practice of oomancy (divination by eggs) of the Orphics is described in ancient sources: supposedly, they put an egg into the fire and observed where the egg white oozed out first. If the egg burst, it was considered a bad omen. Have you ever tried to cook a chicken egg in hot ashes, merely close to a fire? It actually always bursts. Either the Orphics were pronounced pessimists, or the description of the oracle process is not correct. In contrary to that, several, more recent, oomantic customs, once widespread throughout Europe, can be confirmed. For example, to determine the sex of an unborn child, a fertilized hen’s egg was marked and dedicated to a pregnant woman before being incubated by a hen. The sex of the hatched chick was supposed to match the sex of the unborn child. In Puglia, the interpretation of the shapes that albumen streaks form in a glass filled with water has lasted until modern times, a practice that, by the way, I also have the masciàre, a traditional Apulian herbalist, perform in my novel “The Emir’s Trace”:

“One of the techniques that Lia’s aunt used regularly was the albumen ritual: the white of an egg was poured into a big glass of water. The egg white would form streaks in the water, forming different shapes that could then be interpreted. Incidentally, she chatted with the visitor while watching the slimy-milky liquid, asking questions and listening to their answers. Lia knew her aunt well enough to understand that she didn’t believe she could actually see someone’s destiny in a glass. She wouldn’t have ever claimed to. But at the end of a session – Zia Jann wouldn’t have used that word either – problems had been analyzed, causes found, and decisions made. 

Chicken eggs laid on Good Friday were considered particularly powerful. According to popular belief, they could either predict the harvest of the coming year or, eaten raw or cooked, protect against disease. In general, eggs were ascribed equally protective properties, such as the ability to banish the “evil eye”.

Most egg recipes that have survived from classical antiquity deal with pudding-like desserts. I doubt that the Romans and Greeks consumed their eggs almost exclusively as desserts; more likely, as is the case today, eggs were commonly eaten plain boiled, fried, or as a simple omelette: preparations that no one felt the need to write down. However, a single recipe for an egg appetizer stands out: In ovis apalis from the cookbook attributed to Apicius, De re coquinaria (“On the Art of Cooking”):

A dish from Ancient Rome: 

In ovis apalis – Eggs in almond sauce

You need: 

4 eggs

1⁄2 teaspoon ground pepper

lovage (fresh or dried)

1⁄2 cup almonds

1 tablespoon honey

1 tablespoon wine vinegar

fish sauce (or soy sauce, if you prefer)

Blanch and soak the almonds for one hour in warm water. In a saucepan, bring water to a boil and cook the eggs for 5 minutes, then run cold water over them.

In a mortar, crush almonds, pepper, lovage, honey, vinegar and fish sauce to a smooth paste. Next, peel the eggs, cut them in halves, arrange them on a plate and place a spoonful of sauce on top of each half.

Bon appétit, good health and long life!

Ursula Janssen

This article was first published in The Egg Journal #1, 2001.

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