Originally Published October 2011.
Samhain “Dumb Supper”
This was something I just recently ran across so I thought I would get the newsletter out before Halloween/Samhain.
I’ve found a number of webpages describing the practice of a Dumb Supper (“Dumb as in “silent”) that comes from a Scottish/Irish Halloween/Samhain tradition. The Dumb Supper is said to be a nighttime meal eaten in silence as near as possible to midnight on Halloween. Since the veil between worlds was supposed to be thin on Halloween, evil spirits and demons could cross into our world. Friendly spirits, or the souls of the recently departed could also find their way through with a little assistance. So in some traditions the Dumb Supper was intended to encourage the appearance of such a spirit in something like a seance.
Like many traditions, there seems to be a lot of regional variations to the “rituals” or practices. They seem to have immigrated to the U.S. to rural areas like the Southeast, or Appalachia where many Scots and Irish settled and have also been adopted (or adapted) into the practices of Wiccans or Neo-Pagans.
Doors and windows are left unlocked to let the friendly spirit(s) in the house, and sometimes a chair at the head of the table was left empty for the spirit. Some are said to cover the head chair in a black cloth. Other traditions state that several settings should be placed and left open for the dead who wish to visit. When it is time for the meal, they turn off all unnatural lighting and light candles. In rural West Virginia, a variation says that the meal must be eaten backward, with dessert first and appetizers last, and each place setting would be opposite of what it is normally with the fork being on the left and knife and spoon on the right.
A number of websites quote a tape-recorded interview conducted in 1954 with an old woman from the Ozarks who said a Dumb Supper 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.” (Unfortunately none of the webpages I saw documented the source of this bit of oral history.)
Like many holidays in some areas the Dumb Supper had it’s own special bread. The “Soddag valloo,” or “dumb cake” also had divination aspects related to it. On the Isle of Man Dumb Cake was made from flour and water, without leaven, and baked in the hot turf ashes. It was to be baked and eaten in silence by young women. Each one would eat a piece of the bread while walking backwards towards their bed and the woman’s future husband was supposed to appear in her dreams.
Another source claims “Girls are given a small piece of dough, mixed with any but spring water. They knead the dumb cake with their left thumbs, in silence. Before midnight they prick initials on them with a new pin, and put them by the fire to bake. At midnight each lover enters and lays his hand on the cake marked with his initials.”
Another story from a U.S. source says in some versions: “the husband-to-be’s face appears in the plate in which each young woman is eating her cake. In other versions, the specter of the husband appears in the room or knocks at the door. I once heard a version of a dumb supper in which the husband appeared, picked up the knife that the women had used to cut the cake into four pieces and vanished. Two years later, when one of the young women was married, she was subsequently stabbed by her husband. Of course, he used the knife that vanished at the dumb supper.”
The Age and origin of Dumb Supper traditions seem to be a subject of debate, but it might be something fun to add to your Halloween gathering and create you own traditions whether it’s a simple moment of silence with an empty chair at the table, or a more elaborate ritual.
Colcannon is said one of the traditional foods served at a Silent Supper. (A colcannon recipe https://tinyurl.com/bc2dok )
Other foods might include Boxty bread (https://www.redcottagechronicles.com/recipe/irish-boxty-bread/), or Barm Brack ( https://www.irelandforvisitors.com/recipes/blbrack.htm ).
A public Dumb Supper held in Salem, Massachusetts: https://tinyurl.com/432vfmz
A video of a Dumb Supper held by the Temple of Astral Light and the Correllian Nativist Church International https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NHcCE8aj7BY
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