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Traditions of the Dumb Supper

article by Janice Van Cleve, Widdershins Magazine Volume 7, Issue 5 © Samhain, 2001. USA: Washington State: Emerald City/Silver Moon Productions, 12345 Lake City Way NE, Suite 268, Seattle 98125

"I reckon we best be settin' a few mo' places at the supper table tonight, Martha."

"Yes, Clem, there be a powerful lot o' daid folk be needin' rememberin'."

One of the most common places to find the custom of Dumb Suppers in America is deep in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas. In a tape-recorded interview conducted in 1954, an old settler told of a Dumb Supper that was a rite of divination concerned with the future fate of young women in marriage.

"In a dumb supper, you're supposed to set it at the hour of midnight, and two girls has to go backwards and pick up everything they get and put it on the table, till they get nine different things on the table to eat, like pepper and salt and butter and taters, and just anything to make the nine things.

"Three girls was at our house one night, a-wanting to do that, so they tried it. And they say that just before they (the dead) come, why they'll be dogs a-barking and cats a-squawling, and cows a-mooing, and everything like that. And so we heard the cats a-fighting, and here they come, towards the house, just as hard as they could tear, and us a-setting there holding to one another scared to death. And if we had sat right still, like we was supposed to do, not whispering nor saying a word, why then they'll come in and whatever they leave in your plate, why that's what they (the new husbands) will be.

"One come in and left a switch in the plate, and the other one left a little pen knife, and the other one left three doses of medicine. Well, the one that got the switch, her man (new husband) whipped her to death, nearly all the time, she never had no good time at all. And the one that got the knife, just went and hid it and never would look at it no more. And the (one that got the medicine) was kind of sick. (She kept them until a stranger came to the door) and he said, `I want to stay all night with you,' and they said, `Well, if you can put up with our fare, we're poor folks, and got a sick girl in here.' `Well,' he said, `Probably I might help the sick girl,' he says. Well, they let him stay all night, and he left three doses of medicine. And then she took them three doses of medicine and she was well. And that was the man she married. Sure enough."

In rural West Virginia, there is a slightly different version of the Dumb Supper that is passed from one generation to the next. If you wished to contact a recently deceased loved one, you would set a Dumb Supper with extra settings for those who you wished to contact. You would set the table in reverse order than you normally would; forks would be on the right side and so on. All placements would be handled by two people while the table was being set, even the silverware. You would then serve the food in reverse order as well, beginning with dessert and ending with either soup or appetizers.

At some point during the meal, the recently departed loved one would make contact. One reason to try to reach the loved one who recently died was if the family had had signs or "feelings" of restlessness, showing the dead might be confused and had not crossed over to the other side. The contact through the Dumb Supper was a way of helping them to cross over and finally find peace.

The Dumb Supper was not originally part of the old Celtic tradition of Samhain, which dates back to the fifth century B.C.E. Samhain was originally called Trenae Samma and was the Celtic celebration of the end of the harvest. For three days, the Celts would feast, dance and make merry. Gradually, remembrance of those who had passed on during the previous 12 months came to be included. It was believed that for one night that signified the end of autumn and the beginning of winter, the dead could return to the land of the living to celebrate with their family, tribe or clan.

The time chosen for this year-end bash was not arbitrary nor strictly harvest-related. It fell on what is known as a "joint" of the seasons  — a time of transition like our modern New Year's Eve. On these "seams," particularly this one, the division between this world and the next became blurred. The dead, it was believed, knew this and took advantage of it, returning to visit their earthly families. The living, both in fear and awe, made the spirits welcome, while at the same time endeavoring not to be taken by them back to the land of the dead. The tradition of costumes grew from disguises worn to confuse the spirits and avoid this fate.

The disguises were not enough, however, to insure safety on this night. Candles were lit in every room to guide the dead to their former abodes. They were also placated with food and drink. Sometimes, a Dumb Supper was held in their honor, with both living and dead sharing the same table. Extra places were set at the table and food set out for those who chose to return. The living guests remained silent in reverence for the dead. The food was left out overnight for the spirits to enjoy at their leisure.

In later Ireland, in the area by the fire where family and guests gathered, was also the place prepared for the ancestors to visit on Halloween. The family swept the hearth and set out chairs, stools or whatever other seats they had so that they focused on the hearth. The food intended for the dead was probably set out next to the fire in this later Dumb Supper. Tobacco would also be given to the dead. At Halloween, those members of the family who had herded animals in the summer pastures brought those animals home. This return meant that the festival was a coming together of all members of the family, living and dead.

The particulars for Dumb Suppers vary. One version is summarized by Llewellyn's Witches' Calendar for October 1998:

  1. The Dumb Supper must be held in sacred space.
  2. All table service, plates, napkins, glasses and tablecloth, should be black.
  3. No one may speak from the moment they enter the feast room until they leave (with a few exceptions).
  4. Only lamps or candles are used for lighting.
  5. Each living guest should bring a prayer written on a small piece of paper and a divination tool.

Before the supper begins, shroud the head chair, which is the Spirit chair. Set place settings, and place a black votive candle on the plate before each empty chair, with a white one on the Spirit plate at the head of the table. Light each candle. Place your hands on the shrouded chair and ask for Spirit to be with you. Walk to each ancestor's chair touch it, explaining that the ritual is being done in the ancestors' honor.

The host of the feast sits in the chair opposite the shrouded chair. As each guest enters the room, he or she should go to the Spirit chair, touch it, then go to each of the ancestors' chairs and place a prayer under each plate or say a simple prayer silently. The guests then take their seats, join hands and pray a wordless blessing of the meal and for all present. The host serves the empty chairs, beginning at the head of the table. Then the host serves the living guests from oldest to youngest.

After the feast is done and all have finished eating, all join hands, silently asking for the blessings of Spirit on the living and the dead. Now is the time to gather each prayer left under a plate and burn it in the flame of the candle by that plate, catching the ashes in a container. On the sign from the host, the guests leave the area, stopping by empty places or ancestral altar on their way out.

After the host thanks Spirit, the guests return to share any impressions they received during the feast. The table is cleared, and divination can be done. Allow the candles to burn until all have gone home, and then snuff each candle. Throw the candle ends and prayer ashes into a moving body of water, or bury them off the property.

The EarthSpirit Newsletter from Autumn 1996 contains a fine article by Anne Lafferty called "Feeding the Dead." She notes that in Mexico the days between October 31 and November 2 are important because the dead are supposed to visit their relatives at this time. An altar is set up for the dead, and here the offering of food is made. The specific foods offered depend partly on tradition, partly on the tastes of the specific relatives being honored and partly on other factors (such as how wealthy the family is and its specific ethnic background). Bread is invariably included, however. The food provided for child spirits is geared towards younger taste buds than the food given to adult spirits.

Samhain 2001 will have a special meaning for pagans in the United States hosting Dumb Suppers. The sudden awful deaths of 7000 of our human family on September 11 is still grimly alive in our nightmares -- so many dead, so violently and abruptly ripped from the land of the living. Most of the body parts will never be found. What of their souls? Are they still staggering, dazed and confused, in between the worlds? Have they found rest? Have they had any chance to say goodbye?

Our Dumb Suppers for 2001 could give them a proper farewell. It is a fitting time for the coming together of our magickal families and our communities. It is a fitting time to remember the real connections we have with our families of birth and with our national family. It is a fitting time to not only grieve our lost sisters and brothers in New York and in Washington and in a field near Pittsburgh but also honor them, and through them honor our roots as an American nation, a melting pot and cauldron for the world.

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