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,
9 thoughts on “Blog Post 146 – Dowsing”
I was surprised as a teenager to hear that my grandpa had used a “water witch” to figure out where to dig a well on a new piece of property he had bought up north. He was always such a science-ish sort of guy and grandma was such a mainstream (read: somewhat boring) protestant Christian. I asked him if it was done with a stick and he said yes, and that it worked great; they found a place for the well.
ps: I love the “their clothes had the devil in them” comment. I wonder how many women actually got undressed out of concern. lol
Lol, I agree about the clothes, Jessica. That was one of my favorite parts of this research, too 🙂
Thanks for the comment!
loving the history. I remember dowsing as a kid, or rather, tying a brass pen around a string and using it to tell me where lost objects were…i think those objects are still lost, so im not much of a water witch or a lost-object-finderer-wich, but dowsing was a great way to start an expedition in the backyard.
Oooh, very neat tidbit about the brass pin! I wonder where that comes from? Very interesting!
I know dowsing was used in rural Texas at least up until the 1940s. My great-grandmother used to tell us kids stories about the “water witcher” (which is what they called the man, and it was always a man) coming out to the farms to help them locate the ideal spot to dig for a well. This would have been around 1920 or so, but I’ve heard later tales as well. In this part of Texas, everybody (including my great-grandmother) was a very conservative Baptist or else Church of Christ, so whatever they considered to be the source of the dowser’s skill, it wasn’t witchcraft, as they would never have had anything to do with something viewed as non-Christian. After she told us the story, us children (myself, my sister, and my cousins) went out into her yard and found a forked stick so we could try “water witching” for ourselves. Even as a very young child I was fascinated with magic, divination, and Witches, and her tales were one of the first times I heard of real-life, adult people doing something obviously supernatural, and I can recall thinking “I knew it was real!” Before that, I’d always been told such things only happened in story books.
My in-law’s family are also from a conservative branch of Protestantism, and they recognize (even if they don’t legitimize) the dowsing done by certain folks with a “gift” for it. Always very interesting balance struck in the south between mysticism and fundamentalism 🙂
Thanks for a great comment!
When a person puts personal sweat and livelihood on the line I really sit up and take notice. 5 years ago plumbers had to locate the waste pipe that led from my parent’s house to the street. They dowsed for it and found it. Imagine my delight! That’s what fascinates me about dowsing…digging a well, locating a pipe, etc. is hard work. Trusting your dowsing skills to that degree is true Art.
Agreed! Thanks for a great illustration of dowsing in the modern world, Modred!
People still dowse for water here in Jackson county, TN. It is as common place and planting by the Moon signs. I have used straightened metal coat hangers with a bent 90 degree angle on the end for handles to dowse. I have dowsed for lost objects such as a pair of glasses dropped in the leaves and found them in a few minutes. Anyone can do it, just have to clear your mind.
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