Witching for water

Dowsing or water divining doesn’t work any better than chance or through surface clues. So why is does it still create heated arguments and skeptical converts even today? Does it still have its place in modern well drilling?

Of all the superstitious and seemingly mysterious effects related to geology, dowsing ranks up there at the top. People swear it works and you just need to try it yourself to be convinced. A forked twig is held, palms upward, with tension, and the diviner walks purposefully around the field until the sticks or rods twist violently in his hands to indicate the desired material is under foot. Right there. Dig there. The instructions are quick, decisive and inexpensive. It is a triumph of folk knowledge over science. And that is exactly why dowsing remains in use today after being discredited countless times.

Why spooky?

The connection between the diviner, his instruments and the treasure (whatever it may be) is not obvious but hidden. This is occult knowledge that must be learned, usually through watching and through a ritual with specific rules and processes. In the mid 17th century, the movement of the rod was said to be due to the devil’s influence. It was sorcery or magic. Some people claim the power comes from Moses who struck a rock with his rod and produced water. Some say it is a feeling of “energy” or tingling sensation they feel transmitted through the rod. The stick is “thirsty” for the water, they say. The degree of “pull” in the rod can indicate depth, though some use a pendulum to fine tune the location or another bouncing rod to figure depth to water. Some courageous diviners need only a map to decide where to drill.

The term “witching” – an exclusively American term – signifies this spooky, mysterious, occult aspect. In Europe and northeastern US, it is known as dowsing. “Divining” is referenced in the south, adding a magical aspect. In PA Dutch country, you might hear it called “water smelling”. And, if you are looking for oil, it’s called “doodle bugging”. The diviner must “tune in” to the material he is setting out to find and then the stick will move on its own. Faith is required, and if they accept payment for their work, some say they will lose the gift.

Ancient? Not really

Many people assume dowsing is an ancient practice and think that being “ancient” is justification for concluding the practice effective and/or valid. This is not necessarily so, and, as we’ll see, there may be usefulness in dowsing but not what you expect. For a history, consult the USGS publication “The Divining Rod: A History of Water Witching” by Arthur J. Ellis (1917).

The idea of the dowsing rod has been conflated with ideas about magic wands and rods. For example, in ancient Greece, they used rods and sticks to answer questions but not to find water or minerals.The Romans coined the term virgula divina but this involved reading signs through rods or pieces of stick, not to locate water or mineral deposits. [W.F. Barrett, In Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, Volume 15]. Ctesias (4th century BC) described pieces of the “parebus” tree that attracted gold and silver. As previously mentioned, there were the tales of Moses bringing forth water from the rock with his staff, and Circe’s magic wand.

The first mention of using a stick, mainly a forked twig, to find materials was only about 500 years ago. Ancient texts to find water never mention dowsing, which is telling. An image appeared in Sebastian Münster’s Cosmographia printed in 1550.
Agricola gives the clearest first mention of the practice (in finding minerals, not water) in the 1556’s De Re Metallica also accompanied by an iconic image of the practice.

Efforts to find mention of divining rods to find minerals or water prior to the 16th century have resulted in only questionable references. Vogt and Hyman’s book Water Witching USA provides an excellent overview of the history, use and scientific aspects of the practice. They are quite certain that the birthplace of the practice was early 16th century Europe in the mining regions of Germany. Miners brought the practice to Cornwall, England to search for mineral deposits. Then, it spread via colonization. It was not known among Asians, in the middle east, or with the Natives of the Americas until it was shown to them by others. The first account of the divining rod being used to find water was in 1568 when a supply was needed for a convent.

Even then, contemporary natural philosophers didn’t think much of its worth for locating deposits. The great Paracelsus said divining rods have “deceived many miners” and that “faith turns the rod”. In a footnote to the Hoover translated version of De Re Metallica, it was noted that use of a divining rod remained widespread into modern times:

“There were few indeed, down to the 19th century, who did not believe implicitly in the effectiveness of the this instrument, and while science has long since abandoned it, not a year passes but some new manifestation of its hold on the popular mind breaks out.”

How true this is! Modern divining rods include devices that are said to find lost objects, drugs, diseases in people, and even hidden explosives. They work on the same faulty premise as dowsing rods but the consequences of false negatives can be deadly. Still, even national military experts have fallen for the hollow promise of quick and easy detection.

This brings us to the inevitable discussion of why dowsing as proposed does not and COULD not work as described. Agricola thought it was just another form of magical thinking. If it worked, he supposed, why is the stick not be brought to the ground? He knew the mechanism of the rod movement lay not in the stick but in the carrier himself.

Dowsers often will say that the movement of the twig is caused by the power of “veins”. If it doesn’t work for you, it’s your fault because it works just fine for others (a convenient excuse). But does it actually work?

The short answer is “no. Vogt & Hyman explain that in the hundreds of controlled tests of dowsers, it repeatedly fails to be any better than chance.

We know of few other hypotheses that have been put forth so persistently over such a long span of years with such consistently negative experimental findings as the hypothesis that water witching “works”. (p. 82)

For those willing to think more deeply about problems with dowsing, read on. For those already convinced and have their minds closed to doubting its use, the rest of the piece might annoy you. But, the truth is, dowsing consistently fails in objective tests. Blame the skeptics’ negativity if you wish, however, the fact of the matter remains, dowsing doesn’t make sense and scientific efforts prove more worthy.

Sciencey aspects

Several aspects of dowsing are at odds with what we know about nature. The simplest explanation given by dowsers – that the stick leads them to water –  is easily falsified by suspending the stick. It doesn’t react to water. The idea of electrodynamics is also flawed as the world is currently swamped by electromagnetic fields more powerful than those given off by flowing underground water as commonly described by water witchers.

In terms of finding water, dowsers have an utterly mistaken notion of hydrogeology. They believe water travels in underground streams or veins. “Domes” are single pathways of water coming up from deep underground. Veins emerge from domes and then join and split. This is simply wrong. In many cases, groundwater is diffuse in the aquifer. In some cases, though, a fracture zone will yield higher flows. The dowsing rod doesn’t pick this up better than a fracture trace map or even visual clues from the ground surface. The dowser doesn’t trace the fracture zone or fault. Only in rare cases does a “underground stream” exist (in karst). Obviously, in areas where there are aquifers near surface, you can drill most anywhere and hit water. Strangely, most diviners won’t guarantee a “dry” hole (for testing) since those are more physically difficult to pin down.

Judging a successful well isn’t so clear cut and this allows dowsers some wiggle room with their claims. If it’s not immediately clear that a good yield has been hit, give it a few days or use well development techniques and it will probably turn out OK. Or maybe, you just need to go a bit deeper. Dowsers might also claim that they correctly spotted a vein but it was crushed or diverted by the drilling. In any case, the failures are overshadowed by bragging about successes.

Some dowsers attempt to uses sciencey-sounding explanations for their practice. Dowsers variously claim that they are influenced by “electricity” or “magnetism” or “chemistry”, that they feel “energy” over the spot. (It may be called “radiesthesia” or “cryptesthsia”.) None of these signals are given by water in a degree sufficient for human detection. Instrumentation is more sensitive to small environmental changes. Yet, instruments can’t objectively detect these dowsing “energies” to match the claims. Case histories and field tests provide the bulk of positive evidence for dowsing. Such results are subjective, flawed, and not scientific. A baseline for comparison is missing. Consistency is not taken into consideration. Authors Vogt & Hyman think that bias is clearly in play when dowsers take credit for finds – observers are impressed by dramatic and rare events and forget the failures. They also ignore the ease of finding water in many areas where the feat is really nothing special. Dowsers consistently and reliably fail when asked to find water in blinded tests. More damning is that in objective tests, two or more dowsers will not converge on the same prime location!

Dowsers claim they have a gift or inherited power to find water. The rod, they say, amplifies this power to detect the material which makes it move so dramatically. The movement, however, is more naturally explained. The forked stick is held in such a way, palms up, with tension in the muscles, that any tiny movement in the wrist or arm muscles will cause it to unwind and react, like a coiled spring. The stresses of this unnatural position are released without the person even being aware they are doing it. The same holds true for metal rods balanced in loose grips that allow free movement. The smallest movement will cause a reaction in the rods. This involuntary motor behavior is the same effect that causes a pendulum or Ouija board planchette to move. Implicit muscle activity occurs just by THINKING of movement. This “ideomotor effect”  has been borne out by many scientific tests. It’s not controversial. And it certainly is at play in dowsing. The mechanism was explained in the 17th century, again by scientists like Michael Faraday in the 19th century, and today by debunkers. Still, not many scientists know if it and can adequately account for it. They can even be readily convinced of the power of the rod they feel certain they are not influencing. And yet, it moves.


In conclusion, water witching doesn’t work to find water… really. But it retains its allure and a sense of magic as it still results in dramatic demonstrations that look utterly convincing to onlookers.

A benefit of dowsing is that it provides the farmer or landowner with an unequivocal place to drill for water. Dowsing is all about “practical” and relies not on academics, which involve time and expense, but on common sense and an organic “feel” of the earth. Geologists called in for well consulting will look at trends and long-term data, then give unsatisfyingly uncertain and general guidance. But the dowser will tell you precisely where to drill and usually guarantee success. In this sense, the dowser takes precedent over the scientists by eliminating uncertainty and making the decision for the landowner. Through this practice, bolstered by recommendations from respected people in the community, the dowser gains prestige and respect and feels special. It’s erroneous to assume that dowsing remains in use because farmers are uneducated and “magically minded” but because, as Hyman, a psychologist, explains, “there are potent psychological and social reasons for it.”

Therefore, we can explain dowsing or water witching as a direct, emotionally appealing method to decide where to invest in well drilling. There is nothing scientific or magical about it, except in our heads.

Agricola, Georg, Herbert Hoover, and Lou H. Hoover. Georgius Agricola De Re Metallica. Dover Publications (1950).

Vogt, E.Z, Ray Hyman. Water Witching, USA. U. of Chicago Press (1959).

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