Honoring Your Ancestry with a Samhain Dumb Supper

There are more guests at table than the hosts
Invited; the illuminated hall
Is thronged with quiet, inoffensive ghosts,
As silent as the pictures on the wall.
{Henry Wadsworth Longfellow}

There exists a concept both inside and out of the pagan sphere known as a Dumb Supper (sometimes also called a Silent Supper). Outside of modern paganism, traditionally, the steps it comprised were enacted as a form of romance-driven divination, practiced particularly in the New World by those in parts of the Appalachian region of the United States. Within the Pagan realm, we generally hold a Dumb Supper as a means of paying our respects to the dearly departed, inviting them to join us in a meal that is consumed total silence.

The precise origins of this iteration of the Dumb Supper are shrouded in layers of mystery, some degree of speculation, and a charming mishmash of historical and cultural references – many with European roots.

The concept of providing or leaving food for the departed is anything but new, yet for a lot of us in the 21st century, particularly in the Western World, this once common and widespread practise is not something we’ve grown up with doing.

While any meal can be served at a Dumb Supper, there’s something rather beautiful and poignant about the idea and act of weaving your cultural heritage into your silent dinner. If you happen to know what country or countries the ancestors you’ll be focusing on at your Dumb Supper hailed from, why not make a feast that includes foods from those nations?

Cleansing the Energy

Before you set the dining table though, you may want to first do a spiritual cleansing of your home or the room where the Dumb Supper will be held, as a means of imparting a positive, or at least neutral, energy into the room that may be more

inviting to your dearly departed. Incense, smudging, charged waters, emotion absorbing crystals – even good ol’ sunlight and fresh air themselves are all great ways, often in conjunction with goal target words or thoughts, and your own positive energy, to cleanse any space.

Ancestral Recipes & Decor

If you know where your lost loved ones originated from, take some time to read up on the culinary history of that country (or those countries, as the case may be). The internet and cookbooks are great sources, as can be other living relatives who may maintain strong cultural ties – or perhaps you already have a treasure trove of family recipes sitting in a well-loved book or box right now that you can dive into.

At a Dumb Supper (the name of which, it should be noted, uses the word “dumb” to mean mute or silent, not unintelligent), places are set for all the living who will be attending, with one or more spots, if space allows, for the departed.

If you do not have room at your table for multiple “ghost settings”, but wish to honour and invite in multiple souls, you can always place a designated object

on the table to represent each person.

This could include such things as a cleansed crystal, a candle, flowers, miniature pumpkins, teacups, or even small items that once belonged to those you are lovingly remembering at this meaningful meal (e.g., jewelry, eyeglasses, good luck charms, favourite drinking vessels, etc).

Many prefer to set their table with as much black as a possible, which is a logical and lovely choice, but in the spirit of honouring your ancestry, why not try to include elements from their culture(s) as well as, or instead of, black? Examples could include such things as table linens, candleholders, candles, china, silverware, glasses, serving utensils, photographs, wreaths, seasonal décor, and centerpieces from, or designed to represent the countries of, your ancestry.

Dumb Supper Traditions

Generally, at a Dumb Supper, participants are asked to remain silent throughout the meal (which, often, is served with only candle or faint natural light to illuminate the room). This is done as both a sign of respect for the departed and as a chance for the dead to let their voices be heard – either literally or figuratively.

Some people like to serve the dishes at a Dumb Supper in reverse order. That is to say, starting with the final course and working backwards to what would traditionally be the first (starter) course. To my mind, this point is a matter of personal preference.  

As you and your tablemates, if applicable (Dumb Suppers can certainly be held as events with just one living participant present), consume your meal and reflect on those souls that you have invited to share this special evening with you. Listen, feel and look for any signs of their presence in the environment.

You may wish, either during the evening or beforehand, to write out a letter to, or a prayer or wish for, those whose memory you are celebrating. These can either be read aloud at the point in the night where the silence is broken and then burned in a safe manner, or burned safely in offering while all present remain tight lipped.

In the same vein, you might wish to write small, welcoming messages in the departed’s mother tongue and place them at each spot that has been designated for them at the table. If you do not speak the language, turn to the internet and helpful sources such as Google Translate to assist you.

 

If you’re not aware or certain, for whatever reason (adoption included), where some or perhaps even all of your ancestors originated from, you may wish instead to honour the heritage of your adopted family, the country you grew up in, or even the concept of archetypical ancestors, which we all collectively share.

Dumb Suppers are most commonly held at Samhain, the last and final Sabbat of the harvest season. It is an intensely powerful time when the veil between the worlds is at its thinnest and thus interactions with the spirit world may occur more easily or readily.

As you take part in your Dumb Supper, remember to listen with open ears and an open heart alike. Embrace your thoughts, emotions and feelings as they come to you – perhaps opting to record them, say in your journal, grimoire or Book of Shadows shortly thereafter.  

No matter if you have a family tree the size of a Giant Redwood filled to the brim with names, if you only know who your parents and grandparents were, or are the sole identified member of your genetic line, remember that regardless of whether we are aware of who our ancestors were, they know us and will be there when we call on them.

Why not do just that this Samhain by hosting a Silent Supper filled with foods that hold meaning for you and your family, your ancestors, and the long, incredible collective human linage that we all stem from?

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