Today’s entry deals with a very specific type of magic, one which has been associated with the word “witch” in a positive way even within deeply Christian communities for a century or more. The practice of dowsing, or “water witching” as it is sometimes called, essentially deals with the use of divination instruments to find something. Most frequently, that something is water, but on occasion it might be oil, precious metals, lost objects, or even lost people. The phenomenon of water witching is one of the most accepted mystical practices in the West today, and there are organizations devoted to its study from both scientific and metaphysical perspectives. A person can be a dowser and still be a respected member of his or her community, even a highly valued one if he or she is effective at it, though magic or divination of any other kind might be frowned upon by the neighbors. But just what is dowsing and how does it work? Here is an excellent description taken from a folklore handbook on a specific area of the Appalachian foothills:
Almost without exception, dowsers were used to ‘witch’ wells dug in the region [the Upper Cumberland area of TN/KY] before the 1930s. A dowser, or water witch, is a person perceived to have a skill for discovering underground water with the use of a divining rod, usually a small, forked limb cut from virtually any fruit-bearing tree or willow. Because a water witch’s method is not scientifically proven, reliance on this technique is considered a folk practice. However, there were at least 25,000 active diviners in the United States as late as the mid-1950s, according to folklorist Trudy Balcom, and the results of their predictions have proven as successful as those of hydrologists and geologists.
Dowsers were often called in before a new home was built, so that the house could be located near a well. To find the water, the dowser typically holds the free ends of the forked prongs, wrists turned upward. Thumbs are pointed horizontally outwards so that the loose ends of the prongs extend three to four inches beyond the thumbs. (There are variations on the manner in which the switch is held.) The dowser walks slowly toward the desired location of the well. When the witch comes upon a subterranean stream immediately below, the vertex of the fork turns toward the ground; the stronger the stream, the more forceful the downward pull. The fork often twists in the dowser’s hands when a strong stream of water is discovered. Some say that the bark will even twist off into the dowser’s hands, and a few people claim that the forked limb often begins to nod, one time for each foot of dirt and rock that will have to be excavated before water is reached (from Upper Cumberland Country, by William Lynwood Montell, 37-8).
This summary of water witching covers most of the basics: a forked rod, used to find water before digging a well, the power in the dowser, and the nodding to indicate well depth. It also addresses the issue of scientific verification, which is a sticking point for a lot of professional dowsers. Some argue that they can produce repeatable results with their methods, even going so far as to get large mining companies to acknowledge their findings. Yet many scientific studies are at best inconclusive when it comes to water witching, or even outright disprove the phenomenon (on paper, anyhow). I’m not here to argue the merits of scientific proof of spiritual phenomena, so I’ll just say that both sides have evidence of some kind, and both seem to be firmly convinced of their interpretation of that evidence. Getting back to the folklore of dowsing, I found a rather interesting footnote explaining the dowser’s use of the forked branch in the book Kentucky Superstitions, which seemed to indicate that the forked shape is related to lightning in some way (292).
Water witches proved to be incredibly valuable members of their communities, and were not only popular but highly regarded for their skill, with no diabolical associations. From Vance Randolph’s Ozark Magic & Folklore:
Nearly all of the old settlers in the Ozark country believe that certain persons can locate underground streams by ‘cunjurin’ round’ with forked sticks. These characters are called water witches or witch wigglers, and the forked switches they carry are known as witch sticks. Despite this sinister terminology, the waterfinder has no dealings with the Devil, is not regarded as dangerous by his neighbors, and has nothing to do with witchcraft proper (83)
Randolph himself takes it very seriously, indicating that it’s not something that he has seen scientifically proven, but which he has seen demonstrated over and over again, which is a fairly sharp contrast to his usual bemused skepticism with regard to the folk beliefs of those he studied. He also makes several other observations on the powers of water witches:
- He says that the power is in the dowser, not the stick itself, but that he felt a distinct sensation upon holding a witch stick in his hands ( 84)
- He discusses the societies built around the practice of water witching or dowsing, including ‘Water Surveyors’ Club’ of Butler, MO (86)
- He gives the story of Fred Goudy of Everton, MO, who dowsed using copper wire instead of tree branches, and gained great fame by doing so (87)
Of note, however, is his doubt about water witches who claim to find mineral deposits or oil. He does not put stock in the ability to find anything other than water with this method, at least as far as the Ozarks are concerned:
Many hillfolk are interested in the search for lost mines and buried treasure, and some of these people have tried to use the witch stick in their quests. If a man is looking for buried gold, he fastens a gold ring to the end of his stick ; if it is silver that he expects to find, he splits the end of the wand and inserts a silver coin. Rayburn says that to locate mixed ores one uses two different metals usually a dime and a penny. Witch sticks thus equipped for treasure hunting are sometimes called ‘doodlebugs,’ but I don’t know if this is an old backwoods term or a recent importation. I have seen perhaps a dozen doodlebugs in operation but have yet to hear of any treasure being found by the doodlebuggers in the Ozarks. It is said that a switch loaded with metal will not react to water, or to any other substance save the particular metal which is attached to the stick (88)
Richard Dorson records the presence and commonality of ‘water witches’ in Illinois in his book Buying the Wind, saying that (in the early 20th century), most farmers had dowsers find wells for them, often for only a dollar or two in payment. He also reports that dowsing for oil had lately (the book was published in 1964 for a sense of temporality) become more common and profitable than dowsing for water (321-22). Veering momentarily into recent history, in a letter dated December 8, 1993, the Chevron Oil Company told Welsh dowser J.P. Taylor that “you opened our eyes to the world of dowsing…it certainly made us think there is more to it than we had previously known.” The letter goes on to highlight how Taylor, with no prior knowledge of the specific geology of two regions, had been able to accurately identify subterranean oil and gas reservoirs. This is hardly proof positive of dowsing’s power, but it should put into perspective the acceptance with which water witching has been met, even in the past quarter-century or so.
I’d like to conclude today by going back in time and abandoning the present-day (not that it’s not a nice place to visit, but let’s go where the history is hanging out) and looking back at dowsing in the Colonial period. Peter M.’s New England Folklore blog tells a humorous and interesting story about the “Rod Men” of Middletown, VT. He also mentions a few of the late 18th-century powers ascribed to dowsers:
- Determining lifespans
- Finding wild plants to cure illnesses
- Receiving divine messages
- And my favorite: “Tell young women their clothes had the Devil in them, and should be removed”
So that’s it for this cursory examination of water witching. There are probably far more qualified folks to write on this phenomenon than me, so consider this a fleeting glimpse into a fascinating subject. My own experiences with dowsing have been limited to using bent copper rods and attempting it (unsuccessfully) with a broken tree branch (which was not taken from a living tree, so that might explain the problem). If you’ve had experience with water witching or treasure/mineral/oil dowsing, I’d love to hear about it! Please leave a comment below! Otherwise, here’s hoping you find what you seek in life!
Thanks for reading,