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.