Ozarks Dumb Supper

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The “dumb supper”, meaning silent supper is a custom of Irish and Scottish origin.  It’s related to, or descended from, the custom of preparing food for the dead at Samhain.  The purpose of the dumb supper is to communicate with, or see the images of, departed loved ones.  The meal is set out in silence, and all doors and windows left open.

A few generations ago in the Ozarks, however, the dumb supper was traditionally a rite of young women and it’s purpose was to call forth the phantom of one’s future husband.  It would seem that it was understood that Samhain was a truly timeless moment, a window to the past and the future.

In complete silence, three young women were to prepare a meal backwards and set it out on the table at midnight.  There were to be exactly nine items of food set out on the table.  Ingredients were to be measured out in capfuls or in eggshells.  On the girls’ plates, either an image of their future mate is to appear, or he is to leave a symbol of what their marriage will be like.  If animals outside start making noise, that’s a sign that the phantoms are approaching the house.

It’s hard to say how the dumb supper tradition began, for in ancient times, Samhain was a festive celebration of the end of summer, the end of harvest and the beginning of the new year was celebrated with bonfires, dancing, drinking, singing, and storytelling.  It was also a time of honoring the ancestors with a special feast.  A clue may be in the fact that the spirits visiting from the Otherworld were called the “silent company”.  No living being was allowed to touch the food set out for them during the feast.  In some places the tradition was for living representatives of the dead, the “messengers of the dead” to go door to door with a song or rhyme begging for cakes.  So in this way, the food of the dead was symbolically consumed, for on this night, events happening in the world of the living could determine events in the land of the dead.

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8 responses »

  1. We used to observe silent suppers years ago, but then began using them almost like a talking stick time. Each person taking a turn to speak about their beloved dead, maybe show something from the altar along with the story and then the next person and so on. For *me* this is much more effective to my needs and desires for Samhain with others–to share about our dead an honor them. I still remember the silent suppers fondly though and I do still observe a time set aside for silence. The power of silence is a mighty power!

    Again, I love this blog. I hope you don’t mind my using the comments as a way to share experiences with you? I love sharing about Pagan traditions and I miss having the time to do this in person with you!

  2. I like your talking stick idea! Yes, I don’t do the silent supper- I believe my “silent company” would rather hear stories in their honor.
    As always, I love your insights.

  3. Pingback: Remnants of Paganism in Ozarks Culture « Ozark Pagan Mamma

  4. I know this was posted so long ago, but I’m hoping you’ll still get it. 🙂 I’m originally from Johnson City Tennessee. I had family of celtic origin that lived in the mountains there and had many traditions. One of these was the Dumb Supper, but it was used as a romantic divination as you mentioned. I never knew that this was as popular as it is, or that it was used to honor the dead. I am so fascinated to learn more about this. There was of course a woman accused of witchcraft in this family along with a resident medicine woman, and some good ol Irish Catholics. 🙂 what a bunch. 🙂 Anyway, thank you for posting this. I feel a little more mystified and connected to my roots tonight. 🙂

    • I’m glad you liked it, Christie! I think there were a lot of common customs spread throughout the Appalachians to here and stemming from Gaelic culture.

  5. Dear tressabelle,
    My name is Maxine Byers and I publish a small pagan newsletter called Elemental Magick. For our October issue I would like to include the article you wrote for your web site titled ‘Ozarks Dumb Supper’
    Our newsletter is a non-profit and free on-line publication. I would of course include your name and bio as well as a link back to your web site where I found the wonderful article.

    I know our readers would enjoy the article as much as I did.
    You can find examples of our newsletter at
    http://issuu.com/maxineknightbyers

    Thank you for your consideration.
    Maxine Byers

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