A forked rod, or branch of tree, that in the hands of certain people is said to indicate, by means of spasmodic movements of varying intensity, the presence of water and minerals under-ground. Traditionally the rod is of hazel wood and V-shaped. The ends are held by the operator. Other materials such as right-angle wire rods are claimed to be equally effective. Diviners claim that under the effect of "rhabdic force," the rod twists or revolves when the operator passes over underground water or minerals. The term rhabdic derives from the Greek for rod.
Mention of the rod used for purposes of divination are to be found in the records of ancient Egypt. Cicero and Tacitus both wrote of the rod "virgula divina." This ancient divining rod was a form of rhabdomancy or divination by means of little pieces of stick.
In Germany it was known as the wünschelrute or "wishingrod" and was used just as fortune-tellers use cards, coffee, or tea grounds today. Agricola's De Re Metallica, published at Basle at the beginning of the sixteenth century, makes reference to another rod, that he calls the "virgula furcata," the forked rod, to distinguish it from the "virgula divina." This rod, he says, was used by miners to discover mineral lodes.
Sixteenth-century Lutheran theologian Phillip Melancthon mentioned this use of the rod and ascribed the behavior of the "instrument" in the discovery of metallic ores to the law of sympathy—the belief that metals, trees, and other natural objects had certain subtle relationships with each other. Believers in this theory pointed to the fact that trees that grew above mineral lodes drooped as though attracted downwards; the scientific explanation attributes this natural phenomenon to the poverty of the soil.
In Sebastian Münster's Cosmography, also written during the sixteenth century, may be found engravings of "mineral diviners" at work. The priests of that time persecuted them as demons in disguise; they were also included in the witchcraft persecutions, suffering tortures and being burned to death.
Among miners on the continent the use of the "virgula furcata" became universal, especially in the Harz Mountains and throughout Saxony. In Germany it was called the Schlagruthe, "striking-rod," because it appeared to strike when held over mineral ores.
"A forked hazel twig is held by its horns, one in each hand, the holder walking with it over places where mineral lodes may be suspected, and it is said that the fork by dipping down will discover the place where the ore is to be found. Many eminent authors, amongst others our distinguished countryman Gabriel Plat, ascribe much to this detecting wand, and others, far from credulous or ignorant, have as eye-witnesses spoken of its value. When visiting the lead-mines of Somersetshire I saw its use, and one gentleman who employed it declared that it moved without his will, and I saw it bend so strongly as to break in his hand. It will only succeed in some men's hands, and those who have seen it may much more readily believe than those who have not."
Some authorities on the subject state that it was first brought to England during the time of Queen Elizabeth. Commissioners were sent to Germany to study the best methods of mining and brought back with them German miners from the Harz Mountains; these foreigners probably introduced the divining rod into England. It was first used to find water in Southern France, but not until a century later was it used in England for that purpose.
It became the "dowsing rod" in England, and Somersetshire might be called the home of the "dowser." The philosopher John Locke, a Somersetshire native, referred in 1691 to the dowsing rod and De Quincey, also from Somersetshire, told of singular cases of "jousers" as he called them. Today this means of finding water is used by farmers and owners of large estates. Dowsers are not geologists who might have a scientific knowledge of the locality—they may be from all walks of life. Among amateur dowsers were Lord Farrer and Andrew Lang.
The rods are mostly cut from hazel, but all kinds of nut and fruit trees have been used; white and black thorn and privet are also favorites. Pieces of watch spring and copper wire are also used, and in some cases the forked rod is dispensed with, the peculiar sensation felt in the arms, hands, and body being enough to indicate the water.
Dowsers wander over the ground with the ends of the fork grasped in the palms of the hands and the rod downward, and when it moves—turning suddenly upward in the hand for water or downward for minerals—at that spot will be found the desired object.
Attempts were often made to investigate the phenomenon scientifically. The electrical or magnetic theory was exploded by Father Kircher in 1654, who balanced the rod on a frictionless support like a delicate pair of scales and found that in this position nothing would induce it to move over hidden water or metal—it must be held by a human being before the movements can occur. In 1854 the French savant Michel Chevreul proposed the theory of involuntary muscular action.
Toward a Theory of Dowsing
Since then there have been many contradictory theories about the agent behind water divining, and there is still no general consensus. Many dowsers claim that they respond to earth "rays" or magnetism. Some believe that a kind of clairvoyant faculty is involved. It is possible that various factors are involved, varying with the talent and skill of the diviner.
It is widely believed that some force acts on the muscles through the nervous system, and that it is stopped by certain materials, such as a silken or woolen glove, rubber shoes, or tight bandages on the arms or legs. The effect has some resemblance to the sensations experienced by sitters in Spiritualist séances.
The diviner is warned that the rod is about to move by a sensation of tingling in the arm and legs, muscular contractions, giddiness, or profuse perspiration. If a particular spot of ground is passed these phenomena immediately cease, leaving a feeling of exhaustion. During the nineteenth century, the Spiritualist investigator Edward W. Cox pointed to the curious analogy that trance subjects are sometimes very sensitive to the touch of steel; they drop it instantly and declare that it feels red hot. Copper affects them similarly, while silver feels cool and gold positively cold.
That some kind of psychic perception is primarily involved, with the movement of the rod only an indicator of that perception, is suggested by the fact that many dowsers do not need to use a rod but rely upon an analysis of their sensations. In her book Essays in Psychical Research (1899), A. Goodrich-Freer reports that the dowser Leicester Gataker relied solely on the sensations experienced in his arm: "His hands, hung down, extended a little outwards, and on observing closely, we could see, from time to time a vibration in the middle fingers which appeared to be drawn downwards, just as in the case of the apex of the twig. His movements throughout were brisk and energetic and his statements were equally definite and decided." Abbé Bouly stated in a lecture in 1928, "I no longer require a rod, I can see the stream with my eyes; I attune my mind; I am looking for lead, I fix my eyes; I feel a wavy sensation like hot air over a radiator; I see it."
There have also been dowsers who react to the presence of underground oil, sometimes reporting sensations of fainting, and their operations have not required the use of a rod.
In the case of John Timms, studied by Oxford scientists in 1924, the demonstration was further complicated by a fore-knowledge of where the hidden streams would be found. The attraction of hidden metals on his rod varied in this order: nickel, gold, silver, copper, bronze. Researchers Henri Mager and Lemoine found, independently of each other, that to produce as much action on the divining rod as one gram of gold does, one had to bury 1.2 grams of silver, 6 grams of nickel, 15 of aluminum, 40 of zinc, 75 of lead, and 125 grams of copper.
Depending on what the dowser desires to find he may hold a bottle of water, a piece of metal, an empty tube (in searching for caverns), or a personal object (for a corpse in water) in his hand. Once a stream has been found it is possible, by varying the mineral substances or by holding tubes of bacterial cultures, to determine its alkaline content or infectious state. From the latter discovery the idea was developed in France (by Mlle. Chantereine, a follower of Mager) of using the divining rod for medical diagnosis. Promising results have been recorded in noting human reactions to disease germs, to remedies and foods, and also in noting the difference between radiation produced by a healthy organ as compared with that of an unsound one.
The following physiological explanation was advanced by Dudley Wright:
"All living beings have in their nervous systems cells with retractile branching processes which correspond to the movable condensers in wireless sets and, in addition, the cells of the body are capable of self-induction (on the same principle as wireless) through coiled structures in the nucleus. It is through these that the bodies of men and animals are capable of tuning into the various wavelengths emitted by other people, by other living things, and even by water, minerals and oil. The muscles are supplied by two sets of nerves, viz., (1.) from the cerebro spinal system which controls the voluntary movement of the muscles; (2.) the sympathetic nervous system which controls tension of the muscles both voluntary and involuntary. The rod moves because a change in the tension of our muscles of the hand holding the rod is brought about reflexly through the nervous system by the radiations received."
Mager claimed to have demonstrated two currents traversing the rod, opposite in direction, repelling one another: a dis-charge current passing from the body of the dowser into the earth on one side, and a return current passing from the earth to the other side of the dowser's body, to his other arm and to the other branch of the rod. He formed the conclusion that the movements of the rod are governed by the laws of electro dynamics as formulated by Ampère in 1820.
Dowsing in France
There has been active interest in dowsing in France for several centuries. In 1635 the Baron and Baroness Beausoleil discovered 150 mineral veins in this manner. They may have been the first to apply the diving rod to finding water as Chevreul in Les Baguettes Divinatoires fixes 1630 as "the most remote date which may be cited for the application of the rod to the discovery of springs, at least in France." The Beausoleils published a book in 1640 (La Restitution de Pluton ) and dedicated it to Richelieu. A few years later both the baron and his wife were put into prison on charges of sorcery.
One of the strangest stories of dowsing is that of the French diviner Jacques Aymar, who in 1692 apparently traced murderers through a divining rod and discovered other criminals in the same way.
On July 25, 1692 (the story goes), a wine seller and his wife were murdered. Aymar was asked to help with the investigation. His divining rod became violently agitated at the scene of the crime and led him, like the scent leads a hound, for several days on the track of the murderers. One of them was discovered in a prison and confessed; two others escaped from France.
The procurator general subjected Aymar to other severe tests. He secretly buried the blood-stained hedging bill with which the murder was committed, in different places in the garden. The divining rod indicated the place of burial every time. Despite these successes, Aymar's faculty was a complete failure when subjected to tests in Paris. However, even in modern times, psychic faculties have often failed in an atmosphere of skepticism or hostility.
In 1853 the French Academy of Sciences delegated a commission of inquiry into the divining rod. The immediate reason for the inquiry was D'Hyères Riondet's Memoire sur la Baguette Divinatoire. The report, prepared by Michel Chevreul and published in book form under the title Les Baguettes Divinatoires (1854), is a classical study. It attributes the movement of the rod to the muscular force of the dowser.
Psychical researchers neglected dowsing for some time. Sir William Barrett was its first modern investigator. He experimented with a dowser who successfully found coins placed under inverted saucers on the table. He published two lengthy reports in the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research. Published posthumously was Barrett's book The Divining Rod: An Experimental and Psychological Study (1926). Written in cooperation with Theodore Besterman, it became a standard work on the subject. Like Chevreul, Barrett attributed the twisting of the rod to motor automatism and considered it a phenomenon allied to automatic writing. Since then considerable progress has been made in validating the phenomena of dowsing.
The Honorable M. E. G. Finch Hatton gives a remarkable account in the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research (vols. 2, 13, 15) of his experiments with J. Mullins, in which his brother, the Hon. Harold Finch Hatton, participated:
"1. I took him on the grass in front of the house, across which the water-supply pipe passed. There was no indication of its presence on the surface, nor did I previously mention its existence to Mullins. On crossing it the twig moved in the manner described and he could trace the water to right and left by its means along the path actually taken by the pipe.
"2. On our way to the kitchen garden, Mullins discovered a spring on the open lawn, whose existence was unknown to me—it had been closed in so long—but was subsequently attested by an old laborer on the place who remembered it as a well, and had seen it bricked in many years before.
"3. On reaching the kitchen garden I knew that a lead pipe, leading water to a tap outside the wall, crossed the gravel path at a certain spot. On crossing it the twig made no sign. I was astonished at first, until I remembered what Mullins had said about stagnant water and that the tap was not running. I sent to have it turned on, re-conducted Mullins over the ground, when the twig immediately indicated the spot. When Mullins had passed on I carefully marked the exact spot indicated by the twig. When he had left the garden, I said: 'Now, Mullins, may we blindfold you and let you try?' He said 'Oh yes, if you don't lead me into a pond or anything of that sort.' We promised. I then reconducted him blindfolded to the marked spot by a different route, leaving the tap running, with the result that the stick indicated with mathematic exactness the same spot. At first he slightly overran it a foot or so and then felt round, as it were, and seemed to be led back to the exact centre of influence by the twig."
In 1913, before the International Congress of Experimental Psychology in Paris, Joseph Mathieu asked to be tested for a strange ability divining water from maps alone. The claim was proved later. E. M. Penrose, official water diviner to the government of British Columbia (Occult Review, March 1933), was also successful in duplicating the feat. Since then many modern dowsers use a pendulum instead of a rod, and their practice is named radiesthesia. French dowsers were pioneers in this field.
In Gallipoli, during World War I, the British Expeditionary Force was nearing exhaustion because of the intense heat and lack of water. Sapper S. Kelley, the former head of Kelley & Bassett, civil engineers from Melbourne, attempted to find water by a piece of bent copper band. Within 100 yards of the divisional headquarters he found a spring that gave 2,000 gallons of pure, cold water per hour. In a week he discovered 32 wells giving sufficient water to supply 100,000 men with a gallon of water daily.
The Abbé Bouly restored large areas of war-devastated land in France to cultivation by localizing buried shells. He was able to discriminate between German and Allied ammunition. Another man claimed success in determining the sex of eggs by the use of the divining rod. Maria Mattaloni, a 24-year-old Italian peasant girl, located many old Etruscan tombs at Capena, near Rome.
The Abbé Gabriel Lambert, the well-known French water diviner, was the subject of some interesting experiments in London. As narrated by Harry Price in Psychic Research (October 1930) the Abbot used a bobbin (like a fisherman's cork float, cone-shaped and painted in stripes of bright colors) suspended from a thread in his right hand. Over hidden springs in Hyde Park, the bobbin which Lambert was purposely swinging laterally "would make a spasmodic movement, change its course, and commence spinning furiously, describing a larger and larger circle the longer we stood over the source of activity. When we reached the bank of the subterranean river the bobbin would stop dead—just as if it had been hit by a stone. The cessation of the spinning was even more spectacular than the commencement…. When we came to a nappe (a pool of still water) the bobbin would make quite a different movement. The Abbé could tell the depth of the hidden supplies, their approximate volume and directional characteristics…. The Abbé considers that his gift is partly physical and partly psychic. For instance, if he is looking for a nappe, he will pass over a dozen running springs without becoming aware of the fact. And the reverse is the case. He will be likewise unconscious of a flowing river (or water of any description) if he is looking for minerals of a metallic lode…. To provide the other 'pole' when using his bobbin, he carries in his free hand a small bottle of pure water (if looking for drinking water), a bottle of mineral water if seeking a chalybeate spring or a piece of ore similar to the metallic lode he is trying to find."
On March 22, 1931, a congress of water diviners was held in Verona by the National Society of Rhabdomancy of Italy. Nearly two hundred members assembled. It was stated by one of them that the king of Italy had water divining powers.
Since then associations of dowsers have been formed in many countries, using either name—"dowsing" or "radiesthesia." The French society L'Association des Amis de la Radiesthé was founded in 1930, followed by the British Society of Dowsers in 1933. Similar associations have been founded in Germany, Italy and other European countries, and in the United States the American Society of Dowsers was formed in 1961. A number of journals have been published, including Journal of the British Society of Dowsers, The American Dowser, La Chronique des Souciers, Radiesthesie Magazine, Les Amis de la Radiesthesie, Zeitschrift für Radiästhesie, and Radiästhesie—Geopathie— Strahlenbiologie.
A specialized branch of dowsing is radionics, in which an apparatus is used to detect or treat illnesses, involving theories of wavelengths and vibrations, and using coils, condensers, and other devices associated with electronics but without conventional electronic construction.
Although many earlier theories about "earth rays" have not been satisfactorily resolved from a scientific point of view, they persist in one form or another, and the divining faculty has been associated with the earth and stone energies claimed in the study of leys.
The subject is a vast one, and so far the only comprehensive survey of the scientific factors involved is the monumental study by Prof. S. W. Tromp entitled Psychical Physics; A Scientific Analysis of Dowsing, Radiesthesia and Kindred Divining Phenomena (1949). The book contains a bibliography of nearly fifteen hundred references. The Barrett and Besterman study, The Divining Rod (1926), remains a basic reference in the field of water divining itself, supplemented by Besterman's later book, Water Divining: New Facts and Theories (1938). A valuable work published by the U.S. Geological Survey, Department of the Interior, is The Divining Rod: A History of Water Witching (1917; 1938), which contains a chronological bibliography up to the year 1916. For an uncritical skeptical view of dowsing, see the chapter "Dowsing Rods and Doodlebugs" in Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science (1957), by Martin Gardner. For a skeptical survey of dowsing see Water Witching, U.S.A. (1959), by Evon Z. Vogt and Ray Hyman.
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Bird, Christopher. The Divining Hand. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1979.
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——. Map Dowsing. Santa Barbara, Calif.: El Cariso, 1971.
——. Oil Locating. Santa Barbara, Calif.: El Cariso, 1971.
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Nielsen, Greg, and J. Polansky. Pendulum Power. New York: Warner, 1977.
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Stark, Erwin E. A History of Dowsing and Energy Relationships. North Hollywood, Calif.: BAC, 1978.
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Wayland, Bruce, and Shirley Wayland. Steps to Dowsing Power. Howell, MI: Life Force Press, 1976.
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