Monday, October 24, 2011

The Custom of the Dumb Supper

I honor the custom of the Dumb Supper every year, and sometimes several times a year. It has become associated with this time of year due to the associations of Samhain, Day of the Dead, All Saints Day, and Halloween-all honoring spirits, the deceased, saints who have passed on, etc. However, a dumb supper can be performed any time of year and Beltane is also a good choice to do this. The veil between the worlds is thin on this day as well with equal parts of day and night.

One reason a lot of people have not heard of Dumb Supper is because it is ancestor worship which people like to think is not common in this country. In fact, a  lot of Americans find it very uncomfortable because we do not have the respect and connection to our families and elders as other cultures do. However, each time you pray for a deceased relative, you are honoring the dead. It may also seem like something associated with the occult, when in truth most people practicing Dumb Suppers in this country are God-fearing folk in the Ozarks of Arkansas, through out the south and all the way over to the east coast. Most of us realize, as pagans, that the folk magic of the mountains GREATLY parallels our own traditions whether they want to admit it or not. Another reason is that most Christian denominations will see it as a form of idolatry, which is why they don't believe in working with the saints as well. Honestly, I think there are more cultures who have a celebration or custom that is similar in meaning than those who do not.

I begin this night by walking to the cemetery next to my neighborhood, loaded with my besom, a box of shabbas candles, a few clean cloths, and a sack of dimes. I stop for those who call to me, clean their stone, sweep the ground clear, light a candle and leave a dime. Few things are more rewarding than learning the respect it takes to remember someone who has been forgotten. This custom is traditionally done in the "pauper's cemetery" the part of the cemetery where people were buried with very simple headstones, or none at all, because their families could not afford them. The cemetery I live next to was for the wealthy in my city, there is no pauper's place, so I choose to honor the oldest graves who most likely have no one to come visit them any longer.

There are many details that can be taken into account when setting a Dumb Supper. Some people believe all the linens, dishes, and decor should be black. Some believe you must set the table backwards, forks on the right and knife and spoon on the left, begin with dessert and finish with the appetizer or salad. You can make the practice as detailed as you like, but what is important is that you make the time to do it.

Folks also like to perform divination on this night, and why not? Everyone you have ever respected is there to get advice from! So divination is a common practice after the supper.

The main traditions I like to follow are setting an altar for the ancestors and spirits. Each physical person in attendance should bring something owned by the ancestor when they passed to add to the altar. Photographs and jewelry are common. This altar always has fresh flowers, marigolds are common in Mexico and are seen in the millions for Day of the Dead. The flowers are the most expensive item for me as it is nearly winter in Michigan. Glasses of water, preferably crystal and decorative goblets, because the dead are always parched. I like to add skull candles and images of Santa Muerte as well. Buy a few new, special candles for this occasion if you can-I prefer natural beeswax. A tablecloth from a passed family member is a nice addition, if you are lucky enough have one. I always use a stone vase of my great grandmother, Lucy Alice Leet, to hold flowers.

ALL food for dumb supper must be made WITHOUT salt! Salt drives spirits away, it is a purifier, so there is to be no salt in the food and none on the altar. Each physical person attending should invite one ancestor, so you must double the place settings and each setting for an ancestor should have a candle to light it.

Traditionally, 9 dishes are offered. I prefer to set all food out at once and let the spirits have their choice. Basically, everyone needs to bring two dishes or two bowls of the same dish. I know-it's a lot of work-but all good things are:) After the table is set, each person who enters the room touches the chair(s) reserved for the spirit(s) and says a silent prayer. From the moment you enter the room you are to be silent or "dumb" as in "deaf, dumb, and blind". Not exactly politically correct but we're not worried about that right now.

20 minutes usually seems sufficient enough time for spirits to gather. In the mean time you can meditate, pray, sit by a fire, read, but remember to pay attention- signs and messages could be flying about! If you have a group of guests, each person can write a request to their ancestor at this time, petitioning for advice in some area or for blessings. This paper should be placed beneath each person plate. Now, you and your physical guests may eat, also done in silence and reverence.

After everyone has finished each person is to set their prayer paper on fire from their ancestors candle, sending their petitions to the spirits. A heat-safe vessel is reserved for the burning petitions to be reserved in. These ashes are sacred and I like to set them outside to be carried away by the wind and spirits while saying a prayer.

It is now a suitable time for divination. Some of the most simple divinations like candle drippings in water, reading egg yolks, or candle flames are some of my favorites for this time. To me, they represent a different time, a time of self sufficiency, when we used what we had to make things happen. There was no money for a fancy tarot deck and no where to obtain one from anyway. Pure forms of divination, divining with the elements, are what I find best for this celebration.

If you have never held a celebration like this in your home I hope you are inspired to at least try part of it this weekend. You won't be disappointed with the respect and reverence you will learn, the release and blessings from the prayers, the beauty of the feast and altar, and the messages delivered.

This custom has taught me much about what it means to serve. To serve SPIRITS we do not know should be harder than serving living people we do not know. So then why do we do so little for those around us, in our own community? If you want to truly lead your own life, you must learn to serve in another's.



  1. I really love this post, I've been looking for some concise info on the modern observance of a dumb supper - I am definitely planning on having one if not this year then next. Thanks for this - I'll be pointing people here from Tumblr / Twitter. :)

  2. Love this post, dumb suppers are a frequent occurrence in our household, but something that I've found oddly absent in the workings of the magical folk I know. Even growing up in a Catholic household we observed this tradition, setting a spare place and serving food for the "departed, forgotten and homeless" on Christmas. Any meal in our home is open for offerings to the Ancestors if they should need, but likewise we have set holidays that we serve them on. We also go to the graveyards once a month with a meal for the Ancestors. It's always gone without a trace when we come back, even the hot peppers, and sometimes gone the next day.

    Notably I thought I would mention, Beltane isn't when night and day are equal, that's Equinox/Ostara, which falls in March, not May. Beltane is however, so I've found, there have been years the veils are sometimes even thinner than they are for Samhain. May is always interesting because of that.

  3. awesome! i'm glad you found it useful. this will be the first dumb supper i hold with my coven, and all but 2 were unfamiliar with it, so i figured i better give a quick run down;) bless! and have a beautiful samhain, dia delos muertes, halloween, and all saints day!

  4. I definitely enjoyed this !! I do however give food and ancestor money as my daily offering but this is something fun I think they would really appreciate. I also really love how you pay your respects to the dead who may not be cared for. Shows your a humble kind spirit.