The History of the Dumb Supper

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While browsing topics related to the neo-pagan celebration of Samhain for a flash fic, I came across a ritual called the dumb supper. I thought it might also be of interest to other paranormal writers and, mostly, I just got off on a tangent trying to trace the origins of the folklore, which is equally ripe with paranormal potential.

A dumb supper is not a stupid dinner, but rather a meal eaten in silence with an empty place setting, usually to invite the spirit of a deceased loved one to the table. Although, there are a couple of references to it being used for divining future husbands, which could go wrong in so many ways.

This minimum frills Candles and glassesséance has all kinds of character, emotional and plot potential from sweet to spooky whether you have your characters finding resolution through a spirit reunion or realizing they didn’t actually know how to cast that protective circle after all.

I didn’t include references to any particular sites for this one because there are so many variations. Doing an internet search for “dumb supper” will leave you with more examples of the ritual than you can shake a stick at.

What I couldn’t easily find, though, was  information about the history of the dumb supper folklore. It was bothering me because it has aspects from quite a few historical traditions from various cultures while other parts, such as the meal-long silence and the backwards/reversal version some discussed, seemed like plausible ritual elements, but I couldn’t find traditional references to them.

Some sites place the origins of the dumb super with the Celts, some in other areas of Europe, others in the Ozarks while a few say its strictly a New Age neo-pagan ritual. Undoubtedly, it’s some combination of all the above since the neo-pagan faith borrows from a wide variety of religions, legends and folklore.

Many cultures, from the ancient Egyptians to the modern Vietnamese, have had some variation of rituals in which food is offered to the dead. There are also symbolic versions of remembering the missing through meals such as the Missing Man Honors Ceremony that uses empty place settings to honor POWs and soldiers missing in action.

The only real historical reference I could find  to dumb supper folklore was in Kentucky Superstitions by Daniel Lindsey Thomas and Lucy Blayney Thomas. The book was originally published in 1920 and is now in the public domain. You can (and should) read it at chestbooks.com. It’s packed full of unique paranormal folklore. On the topic of dumb suppers, Kentucky Superstitions says:

A deaf and dumb supper is prepared as follows. While preparing this supper the participants must neither speak or be spoken to by any one. All the work must be done backwards, that is, they walk backwards and hold their hands behind them while doing the work. When all is ready for eating, some supernatural sign appears to them. Sometimes it is two men carrying a corpse; or a large white dog may appear. Whatever it may be, it is always very alarming in appearance.

A number of the references to the dumb supper in the southern US mention a reversal of order, not necessarily to the extreme of the above example, but as far as reversing the order the meal is served in, such as eating dessert first, and reversing the position of the silverware.

In this region, some references to the dumb supper talk about a serious remembrance of a particular recently deceased loved one, as discussed in most of the neo-pagan articles. Others present the dumb supper as a form of entertainment more like many of the Spiritualist séances, which invited any spirit that might stop by. A recollection of this version is shown in Jan Philpot’s The Dumb Supper, which is part of a series relating to the culture of Henderson County, Kentucky.

So it would seem that the folklore of the dumb supper may have originated in the southern US and the references to it being an older practice are pointing at the many other traditions that do incorporate offering food to the dead without the silent or backwards supper components.

Do you have any other references to dumb supper folklore, or other similar traditions  you find of interest? Please do share!

Photo by Ruben Bär on Flickr. Reproduced under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0.

4 thoughts on “The History of the Dumb Supper

  1. I realize your post is old, but I couldn’t not comment. 😁 An example of an Ozark dumb supper was included in Ozark Magic and Folklore by Vance Randolph. As the book was originally published in 1947, this version has nothing to do with Neopaganism. It was, as you pointed out, one of many ways to divine a future husband. Others include raw eggs, salt, a nightgown, and a fire. One of the storie recorded by Vance details a dumb supper that went terribly wrong. I’m actually working on a story inspired by Vance’s account.

    • Comments are always appreciated on posts of any age! And thank you so very much for mentioning Vance’s book. I hadn’t seen that one before, but it sounds fantastic and is definitely going on my must have list. I find traditional folklore from any culture to be such wonderful story inspiration, and I particularly enjoy the Ozark rituals. It sounds like Vance’s telling of the dumb supper would indeed make for a great story – I hope the writing goes well!

  2. Hi! I am hosting the first ever “Dumb Supper”, although we are calling ours a “Silent Supper” (my daughters liked the sound of that better) here in our area this year. Mine is a ticketed event and I’m having it catered. We will, of course, be dining in backwards order and in silence. Since my daughters and I are also fortune tellers, we will be offering free divinations afterwards. The purpose of ours is to honor and hopefully dine with our ancestors and recently deceased. Mine is modeled after the one they do in Salem, MA, as closely as possible. We are extremely excited and will let you know how it goes! Great post about dumb suppers! http://www.crystalwaltzbrew.blogspot.com

  3. Pingback: My Favorite Time of Year – LadyOfTheLake

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