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The Dumb Supper and its Traditions

For many pagans, autumn culminates with Samhain, more commonly known as Halloween. It is the end of the pagan year and the time when the veil between the worlds becomes its thinnest. It is one reason why Samhain is much associated with divination, ghosts, and spirits. One way of honoring the dead is to have a dumb’ supper on Samhain. This meal was given its name because mute people used to be called dumb’ and this meal should be prepared and eaten in complete silence. The dumb’ supper is a reverent meal, aimed at inviting those who have passed away back to the world of the living for the night. It is a sign of respect to elders and kinsmen who have come before.

Having a dumb’ supper is fairly easy. First, the meal must be prepared with the intent of honoring those family members who have died. Then, set the table with a few (or several) extra place settings. The head of the table should certainly be left open for the spirit of an important ancestor or family member. Here, the tradition varies. In some traditions, it is said to cover the head chair in a black cloth, others say that it should be the only open chair at the table. Even other traditions state that several settings should be placed and left open for the dead who wish to dine. When it is time for the meal, turn off all unnatural lighting and light candles.

In the places of the dead, specific candles can be lit (either black or white). Everyone should be aware that spirits are going to join the meal and make sure to fix those plates first. They are the honorees, after all. After a silent prayer of thanks, everyone should begin eating in silence. When the meal is done, the live guests should all silently thank the ancestors who appeared. While the plates of the living are removed from the table, those of the dead should remain until morning, so that they may eat their fill through out the night. Afterward, divination can be done and the spirits who have come to be with their family may be willing to help.

This is a simple dumb supper. Many different areas have their own traditions. In the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas, this tradition is supposed to foretell the personality of the husband of the young, unmarried women in the house. The dead will arrive to much commotion from the animals in the yard, dogs barking furiously, cats yowling, and even the wild clucking of chickens. They will then gift each young woman with an object and it will tell them about their husband.

In rural West Virginia, a slightly different version of the same tradition appears. Passed down from generation to generation, this version dictates that the meal must be eaten backward, with dessert first and appetizers last. Also, 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.

The tradition of the Dumb’ Supper is predominantly observed by pagans of today, even though some families in rural mountain communities in the United States may also still participate. Essentially, it is a supper by the living, for the dead. It is, then, performed on the night that the veil between the world of the living and the dead is at its thinnest, Halloween. Its tradition dates back hundreds, if not thousands, of years and has only changed slightly from generation to generation and location to location.