The Dumb Supper has been one of my favorite autumnal rituals since I first learned about it nearly twenty years ago. I consider it an autumnal ritual because I most often hold it around the time of Samhain, but it can actually be done at any time at all. It is sometimes called a Silent Supper, because many people forget that dumb means "silent or mute" or a Backwards Supper, because the meal courses are served in reverse order. Some traditions use it as a divination ritual, to learn about the future from the spirits of the dead, and some as a seance, to give messages to and receive messages from the spirits of the dead. To me, it is communion; an act of sharing a meal, in itself a sacred ritual the world over, with the spirits of the dead. So, for me, the purpose of the meal is to invite the spirits of our loved ones who have passed to spend some time and share a meal with us. Even if no one comes, a place is set for them. It can also be used to commune with your gods rather than the spirits of the deceased. In this way, you are not asking for anything, but more inviting them to table to thank them for their involvement in your life.
My Dumb Supper is a ritual of my own design, based on research and information I have found from other traditions. I try to do one every year (if not on or around Samhain, some other time of the year is fine; the period between Samhain and Yule is best for me. Beltane is also a good choice.) but it has been a while since I was able to. Now that things have settled down and my life has picked a direction and started on it, it's time to bring this ritual back into my tradition.
Before you start cooking and setting the dining area, you should bathe (many rituals start with cleansing). If you are invited to a Dumb Supper, bathe before you leave. You can wear your ritual garb or nice dinner attire, black would not be amiss.
The dining area (this can be the every day table or the formal table) is thoroughly cleaned and smudged. I like to curtain it off, to physically separate it from the rest of the space, but that is not always possible. The table is dressed with a black cloth, and a black cloth is draped over the seat at the head of the table; this is the Spirit Chair. The table is set with black plates and utensils if possible, your finest tableware if not, and all seats, including the Spirit Chair, get a place setting. Utensils, cups, and side dishes are placed on the opposite side than where you would normally put them (this is one of the 'backwards' bits). Window curtains are drawn and black candles are set out on the table and around the room if necessary - they will be the only source of light. It is helpful to include things like salt and pepper and pitchers of whatever the beverage is set along the table so every diner is in reach of the things he or she might need without having to ask for them. Labels that identify what things are might help, also place cards so people can find their seats easily, if that is necessary. I cast a sacred circle around the dining area after the table is set. It is sacred space and no one should enter it until the ritual has begun (it could be argued that the ritual has already begun with your cleansing, as the preparations should be performed in mindfulness, so I'll say no one should enter before the meal is ready to be served). The setting of the table and preparation of sacred space is done before guests arrive.
The meal itself can be as many courses as you like, but it should be at least three - soup/salad/appetizer, main course, and dessert. A potluck would be fine. I tend to precede it with a fast. Many traditions recommend preparing food that was favored by the deceased, but don't concern yourself with that if you can't think of anything in particular, or if you are holding your Dumb Supper to honor your gods.
You are allowed to speak outside of the ritual space, but the mood should be somber and mindful. Once the meal begins, you do not speak until indicated, whether you are within the ritual space or not. I use a bell to indicate the start and end of the silent period of the ritual. When the bell is rung, it is time to be silent and wait for instructions from your host (a good host will tell you what to expect before the silent period).
Some suppers might include writing messages to your loved ones. You will share them with no one. Write them before the silent period begins and take them with you into the sacred space. If messages are in your ritual, be sure to put a fire proof container, such as a cauldron, at the place setting of the Spirit Chair. The messages will be lit with a nearby candle and placed in the cauldron at the appointed time.
When the bell is rung, no more talking. Turn your phone off (please don't even bring it into the sacred space). All electronic lights should be turned off and curtains drawn so unnatural light does not bleed into the dining area (as much as can be helped. My last home had a bright street lamp right in front and it didn't matter how closed the blinds were, there was always light from it). Your host may ask you to turn off a light or light a candle at the start of the silent period to help out: do this when the bell is rung. The host and designated helpers, if any, will bring the food into the ritual space at this time. Some traditions say to put the food on a side table, I say work with what you have. It has worked perfectly fine to have the food on the dining table, so people may take seconds if they want, as long as they remain in the current course.
The Ritual Meal
When the food is laid out, the host will indicate that it is time to enter the sacred space and take your seats. Remember, we're already in the silent period of the ritual, so you have to pay attention. Perhaps there will be another bell rung or some other audible but non-spoken cue. As you enter the space, walk around the room counterclockwise, stop at the Spirit Chair (even if you have to pass your own seat first) and give it a silent blessing or thanks or otherwise (silently!) acknowledge the role that the spirits/gods play in this ritual, then continue counterclockwise around the room to your seat and sit down.
When everyone is seated, join hands and bless your meal silently. The host will then serve the first course: dessert (remember, backwards!). The Spirit Chair is served first, followed by the guests youngest to oldest. No one eats until everyone is served. Before the silent period, the host should have told you what to do to indicate you are done with that course, it could be putting your napkin over your plate (usually this is reserved for the end) or moving your dessert plate out of the way. If you wish a second helping, serve yourself (but remember there is more meal). When everyone has finished with the first course, the host will serve the second: the main dish and any sides, in the same order. Again, serve yourself if you want more, and you should already know what to do to indicate you are done. Once again, the host will serve the final course: soup/salad/appetizer, depending on what you're having. Put your napkin over your plate to indicate you are done (if this was the signal your host told you to do). Do not forget that the meal is taken in complete silence. No conversation!
When everyone has finished eating, it is time to give your messages, if your ritual involves messages. The host will indicate who begins (usually the same as served order). Go to the Spirit Chair and read your message (silently) if you wish, or silently tell the spirits/gods what you want them to know, light your paper and place it in the cauldron to burn. If you require assistance with this, the host should be there to help you. After you have placed your message in the cauldron, walk clockwise around the room and leave the sacred space. Do not speak while others perform this part of the ritual even though you are no longer in sacred space.
When the last person, usually the host, has delivered his message, the host and any designated helpers will reenter the sacred space to remove and package any leftover food, clear the table of dishes, extinguish candles in the dining area. The host will then ring the bell to indicate the silent period is over.
At this point, your ritual can carry whatever tone you want. It can be somber and reflective, it can be joyous and jovial. You can play music or tell stories or send everyone home. I have been to some suppers where the guests discuss their experience after the silent period ends. The meal left at the Spirit Chair can remain all night, though I have never been able to do this (cats would not leave it undisturbed). I take it out and give it to the Earth in offering.
If your Dumb Supper is a ritual of divination, where you are expecting to receive messages from the deceased, you may extend the silent period to include meditating and being ready to receive messages, or you may end the silent period as above and expect to receive messages at a later time -perhaps in dreams that night.
I find this ritual comforting, similar to visiting the grave of a loved one, a way to honor those who have passed and remember, and possibly tell them, what they meant to you.
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