There are a lot of misconceptions surrounding what is known as the “dumb supper” in Ozark and Appalachian folklore. It was taken by the pagan community as an ancient Samhain tradition even though there’s very little evidence to support any pagan roots of the practice. It’s most often a tradition associated with divining a future husband, although the neo-pagans seem to apply a much loftier name to it as a sort of festival of the dead.
Vance Randolph talks about the “dumb supper” in his “Ozark Magic and Folklore” giving us a glimpse at some of the real folklore surrounding the tradition:
“In some sections of Arkansas, the girls ‘set a dumb supper,’ by making a pone of cornmeal and salt, in complete silence. Each girl must take her turn at stirring the meal, each must shift the pone as it bakes; each must place a piece of the bread on her own plate, and another on the plate next hers at the table. When this is done, the girls open the doors and windows, then sit down silently and bow their heads. All during the baking, the wind has grown stronger, and by this time there should be a regular gale blowing through the house. Often the lights are blown out. The phantom husbands are supposed to enter in silence. Each girl is supposed to recognize the man who sits down beside her. If she sees nobody, it means she will never marry. If she sees a black figure, without recognizable features, it means that she will die within a year. Many people still take this business seriously enough to forbid their daughters to trifle with it. Some parents say it ain’t Christian and smells of witchcraft, while others object to such foolishness because it sometimes frightens nervous girls into hysteria.
“An old woman in Washington county, Arkansas, told me that when she was a girl they always walked backward while cooking and serving a dumb supper, and measured everything by thimblefuls instead of by spoonfuls or cupfuls. According to this version of the tale, nobody expects to see an apparition enter the room, no extra plates are set for ghostly visitors, and there is no supernatural wind to blow out the lights. Each girl sits down in silence and eats her tiny portion of food, then bows her head over the empty plate. If all goes well, she sees the outline of her future husband’s face in the plate, comparable to the figures seen by crystal gazers and the like.
“Otto Ernest Rayburn, of Eureka Springs, Arkansas, says that in his neighborhood early May was the only proper season for a dumb supper; Rayburn’s informants seemed to regard the ritual as more or less of a joke, but the old-timers that I have interviewed were very serious about it, even a little frightened. May Stafford Hilburn, apparently referring to the region about Jefferson City, Missouri, mentions the dumb supper as an old-fashioned custom ‘to hasten the culmination of a budding romance through the mystic rites thus performed.’ I am not certain just what this means, but Mrs. Hilburn’s description calls for midnight, absolute silence, walking backward and so on, just like the dumb-supper ritual in other sections.
“In Cedar county, Missouri, the same sort of function was called a ‘dummy’ supper. Working in absolute silence, walking backward and looking over her left shoulder, each girl placed a chair at the table and set out dishes, knives, and forks as if for a meal, except that the dishes were empty. This done, the girls took their places behind the chairs and stood with bowed heads. The idea was that after a short period of silent concentration the wraith or spirit of each girl’s husband-to-be would appear for a moment in the chair she had prepared for him. One spoken word, a laugh, a smile, or even a frivolous thought on this solemn occasion was supposed to break the charm. There have been cases in which overwrought damsels persuaded themselves that they really saw ghostly figures seated at the ‘dummy table.’ One old woman assured me that the phantom husband was visible to all of the girls about the table, but the general opinion is that he appeared only to the damsel who stood directly behind his chair, and who was destined to become his wife.
“Mrs. C. P. Mahnkey, of Mincy, Missouri, tells a good story about the dumb-supper ceremony. She says that it is not fiction, but a tale that was told and believed in Taney county, Missouri, when she was a girl. Here is the story in Mrs. Mahnkey’s own words, as published in the White River Leader, Branson, Missouri, Jan. 4, 1934:
“A dear friend of mother’s, a plump and jolly woman, comforting and reposeful, not one capable of harboring such strange and weird beliefs, told the story of the dumb supper, so vividly, so impressively, that I never forgot. She and mother were quilting and as the story progressed, and she would bend her face to bite off her thread, she got in the way of giving a cautious glance over her shoulder, and before the tale had ended, I, too, was giving rather awed glances out into the long, darksome hall.
“She was talking as if she had been present, or as if she had intimately known the parties engaged in this supernatural feast. It seemed the family were away for the night, and the grown girls, left in charge of the home, had invited in some neighbor girls to keep them company, so a dumb supper was proposed. This meant, that in utter silence, and every step taken, to be made backwards, the table was to be laid for a guest, who would come in at midnight, and who was to be the future husband of the girl at whose plate he sat down. The table was only set for one, as it seemed at the test, only one girl was brave enough to thus put her fortune to the trial.
“The others watched her in fascinated silence, as she stepped quickly, if awkwardly, about her task, in the big low ceilinged kitchen. She placed a peculiar knife at the side of the mysterious guest’s plate, with a roguish smile at her friends. A sharpbladed knife, set into a piece of deer horn, for one handle.
“In utter silence they waited, until the old clock slowly droned out the 12 strokes of midnight, when to their terror, the door was dashed open,a tall form advanced, with swift noiseless steps, and then an icy wind blew out the light, and one of the horrified girls screamed. But one braver than the rest, closed the door and lighted the lamp. No spectral visitor, they were alone, but the maiden who had set the table, pointed with white face and shaking hands, the peculiar old knife was not there.
“Later, this girl did marry a stranger, who had come, as a visiting cousin, to the home of a nearby neighbor. And they seemed to be very happy, although the man was very quiet, even taciturn.
“One day the girl’s mother, going across the ridge to visit her, found the little cabin strangely cold and forbidding, and hurried in, to find her daughter lying as if dead, with a knife thrust into her breast.
“When at last help had been summoned, and the old backwoods doctor, able surgeon was he, too, brought her back to consciousness, shudderingly she told the story.
“In a moment of girlish confidence she had told the story of the dumb supper, and the strange guest, ‘as tall as you,’ she had said, and he had listened, in sinister silence. Then he went to an old leather valise he always kept locked, unlocked it, took something in his hand and said to her coldly, ‘And you are the one. You are that witch. That night I walked through hell,’ and thrust the knife into her breast, and ran from the house. He was never seen again, and the knife was the same old peculiar knife with the deer horn handle and the keen blade, that the thoughtless girl had laid when so careless and gay, she had set the dumb supper.”