On certain ‘days’ of the year in the past, the spirit world was considered particularly accessible - which might be a good or a bad thing, depending on the spirit world’s opinion of you at the time. In these times, the new ‘day’ began at sunset – an earthly interpretation of the biblical idea of the Dark preceding the Light. I don’t know who was responsible for taking the arbitrary time of midnight to be the official start of a new day, nor when it happened – it is one of those factoids I have been intending to look up for years. Midnight has no connection with events in the natural world such as sunset or moonrise, and was meaningless in a time when no-one had a clock or any other sort of timepiece in the house. Anyway, I digress.
As on St. Faith’s Eve, young unmarried women could make ‘dumb cakes’ in a divination ritual that would reveal their future husbands to them. The cakes would be made from a simple mix of flour water and salt. One formula was
An egg-shell-full of salt,
An egg-shell-full of wheat meal.
An egg-shell-full of barley-meal.
Not a tasty dish, but the edibility was irrelevant to the magic. An essential part of the ritual was that the entire process be continued in silence (which is why they are called ‘dumb’ cakes – Duh!) There were all sorts of permutations and combinations and variations of aspects of the spell – most required a piece of the cake to be put under the pillow, the future spouse then appearing in a dream (which is why they were also called dreaming cakes.)
A larger interpretation of the same idea was the ‘Dumb Supper’ in which a whole meal was prepared and eaten in silence – either to propitiate the spirits, to allow one to consider ones spiritual fate without the distraction of chatter, or again – in the hope and expectation that the future husband would turn up as surprise guest. Well, it was well before Internet dating, so what was a girl to do? (instructions were quite gender-specific at the time, but I doubt the spirits will mind that we must broaden the idea today.)
It seems that the dumb cake ritual was used quite widely – St Agnes’ Eve, St Anne’s Eve, at Halloween, and even Christmas Eve. I am glad I found this out, for I have been puzzled by a recipe in an American book called Handy Household Hints and Recipes (1916) for some time. The Dumb Cake recipe appears midway between a paragraph on Halloween and one on Thanksgiving, and is also clearly autumnal (or should that be fallumnal, fallmal, fallen?), in its decoration, whereas St Mark’s eve is clearly springnal. It is equally clearly intended to be delicious. A far more likely cake to attract a husband of any gender, methinks.
For those of you who want to try its powers, here it is:
“Dumb cake.”One and one-half pounds flour, one and one-half pounds sugar, one-half pound butter, two cups milk, four teaspoonfuls baking powder, ten eggs and two gills brandy and a little pulverized mace. Mix as any cake and bake in a flat pan. Now cut off two cornes to make it a triangle; ice top and sides with icing; outline nuts and garnish the lower edge with English walnuts and autumn leaves.
Quotation for the Day.
Hemp-seed I sow;
Hemp-seed I grow;
He that is my true love
Come after me, and mow.
A husband-hunting charm to be used on St. Mark’s Eve. It was believed that if this be done with complete confidence in the efficiency of the charm, the figure of the husband would appear, with scythe, mowing the crop. A husband lured by the prospect of mowing? Try the cake, ladies, try the cake.