Feeding The Dead

EarthSpirit LogoThe EarthSpirit Newsletter Autumn 96
Feeding The Dead
by Anne Lafferty

At Samhain many members of the Earthspirit Community come together to honor the dead. Before the ritual begins, participants go to one of several ancestor shrines to speak to those who have died and listen to other people tell their own stories. During the ritual itself, we call out the names of our loved ones who have gone before. We come together to remember the dead and honor them.

According to F. Marian McNeill, Samhain, as practiced by the Celts, was focused on honoring those who had gone before. Several of my sources indicate that the Christian holiday of All Saints’ Day (November 1) appears to have originated with earlier Pagan festivals devoted to the dead. My sources are not in agreement on the specifics, but it appears that All Saints’ Day at one point was celebrated on a different date, but was moved to its current date (probably to coincide with the date for Samhain) in the 8th or 9th century. All Souls’ Day (November 2) was a later addition, which expanded the number of dead to be honored.

Many cultures have ways of honoring the dead. A common way in much of Europe was to give food to those who have died around this time of year. In Mexico, this custom is still important as part of the celebrations for the Day of the Dead, a holiday with both European and Native American roots.

Although several of my sources noted that customs of this sort were widespread, I had trouble finding as much written information as I would have liked about them. Below I will discuss customs of this sort in Mexico and Ireland, the areas for which I found the most information.

My sources for Ireland are Alwyn and Brinley Rees’ Celtic Heritage and E. Estyn Evans’ Irish Folk Ways. Neither Rees and Rees nor Evans give any information about what time period or which specific areas of Ireland they are talking about.

In Ireland, the area by the fire was the place in the house where the family and guests gathered to talk and spend time together. It was also the place prepared for the ancestors to visit on Halloween. The family swept the hearth itself and set out chairs, stools or whatever other seats they had so that they focused on the hearth. The food intended for the dead was probably set out next to the fire. Tobacco would also be given to the dead.

Evans points out that in Ireland Halloween was also the time when those members of the family who had been herding the animals in the summer pastures brought those animals home. This meant that this festival was a coming together of all members of the family, living and dead.

For modern Pagans, this can also be a time when both the dead and the living come together. This is a time for the coming together of our magical families and communities, but it is also the time when we remember the dead. For many of us, this is one of the most real connections between our families of birth and our magical families. We celebrate with our magical communities, but we look back to remember our families of birth. From the place where we are now, we remember and honor our roots.

My primary source for Mexico was The Skeleton at the Feast: The day of the Dead in Mexico by Elizabeth Carmichael and Chloe Sayer (1991). This book is primarily an account of the Day of the Dead as it was practiced in Mexico at the time the book was written. It does, however, give considerable historical background on the Native American roots of this festival and the changes in how holidays focused on the dead were celebrated that resulted from the Spanish Conquest. Although this book does note that there are also Spanish roots for this festival, it includes relatively little information about them.

Generally, throughout Mexico the days between October 31 and November 2 are important in this celebration, although other specific days in October and November may also be important in different parts of the country. The dead are supposed to visit their relatives at this time. Most often, different groups of the dead are supposed to visit at different times – for instance, children often visit at a different time than adults. The specifics of which time, how long and the exact number and nature of the different groups of the dead depend upon the area of the country.

In contrast to the custom in Ireland, an altar is set up for the dead and it is here that the offering of food is made. The construction and decoration of the altar is generally quite elaborate. Flowers, candles, holy pictures or statues, and fruit are typical decorations. Pictures of the dead and decorations made from paper are also common. The altar created for the dead is often (but not always) separate from the altar the family always has in its house.

The specific foods offered depend partly on tradition, partly on the tastes of the specific relatives being honored and partly on other factors (such as how wealthy the family is and its specific ethnic background). Bread is invariably included, however. The food provided for children is geared towards young taste buds- for instance, it is blander than the food given to adults. In addition clothing and other objects may also be offered, although they are generally not placed on the altar itself.

Although the information I have presented is interesting in its own right, it can also be used as a way of thinking about our own practices and why we do what we do. In what area of your home does your household gather? What is the ritual area? Where do you prefer to welcome and honor your dead? What foods do you offer the dead?Why do you choose those foods? What sort of decorations do you have on your altar? Why is it important to honor the dead and why do you choose to do it in the way you do?

If anyone has information about other sources that might be useful, please let me know. You can contact me by e-mail at anne@earthspirit.com or by phone at 617-393-8602.

I would like to thank my faculty advisory, Peggy Wright, for her insight and suggestions about this article.

As the fall leaves start to tumble and the garden needs to be bedded down for the winter – so the wheel turns yet again towards Samhain. For me, this season has always been about honoring the dead. A chance to be close again with loved ones that have gone onward. This year I plan to gather with friends and celebrate these lives and honor them with a ritual dinner that my tradition calls the dumb supper.

The dumb supper is a meal in which the guests of honor are the beloved dead themselves. These guests could be as general as our ancestors or as specific as a close relative, animal or friend. They can not speak literally to us, hence it is called the Dumb Supper. A chair is set out for them with their picture or some favorite objects as well as a full place setting. Their favorite food is prepared and served to them. I like to toast each quest who is present for that meal, giving an account of their lives as I remember them to be and include what I know about their spirits.

This way I bring them closer to me as the veils between the worlds thin, to feed them with my memories and love- a recognition of our ties together. I invite anyone who has a way of celebrating anytime of the year to please write us so we may all share our varied and wonderful living traditions.

Blessed Samhain