Thursday, September 26, 2013


One of the things without which man and animals cannot exist is water. But how do we find it? Have you or anyone in your family used a dowser or water witch?

Speculation for and against water witching and dowsing has gone on for centuries. It was even against the law in some parts of Europe at one time, decreed as superstition and heresy.

My Uncle Ray was able to dowse for water, and he certainly was not a heretic. He might have been a little superstitious, but I’m not sure. We are of Scot-Irish ancestry, so there are a number of people in our family with the “sight.” Perhaps that's why he had the gift of dowsing. My friend Margery’s late husband was a dowser who always found water.

Witch Hazel

By the way, water witching gets its name from the branch of a witch hazel, not from witchcraft. Although Martin Luther proclaimed using the system to search for metals and riches violated the Bible's first commandment.  Some water witches were supposed to be able to locate metals, lost items, etc.That's a whole other subject and  I’m only discussing water, folks. Water witch can be a verb meaning the act of water witching. The two words also can be a noun describing the person who performs the dowsing action.

What brought this on? Reading, of course. You know authors—every time we do research we get sidetracked on one tangent or another. Can’t help ourselves.

While reading through PIONEER WOMEN:VOICES FROM THE KANSAS FRONTIER by Joanna L. Stratton, I came upon the story of Ida Gillette, who sought the help of a water witch to locate water on her Riley County farm. She had found a good sized farm for sale near her brother for what seemed like a reasonable price. After she made her down payment and had a mortgage, she learned the owners sold because they had never been able to find water on the place. She made up her mind not to get discouraged because she would find water on her farm some place.

She had never had faith in water witches and the like. Her brother urged her to get an old man who lived nearby who could water witch. She asked the man and he agreed. She was quite curious to see what he would do and if it would lead to water.

The man took a forked willow stick in each hand and held it out in front of him. He told her the stick would point down when there was water. She watched and, sure enough, the stick pointed down in a bobbing motion, and then down rapidly. The man told her she'd find water in that spot. Her brother had a crew of well drillers at his farm and sent them to drill for her where the water witch indicated. Sure enough, they drilled a 65 foot well with 11 feet of water. She said, “How happy I was when I took my first drink of that cold refreshing water.”

This reinforces my opinion of dowsing and water witching, so I was happy to read her success story. But I decided to investigate further instead of researching what I needed for my work in progress. Can you say procrastination?

According to Mother Earth News I learned some swear by the ancient Greeks used water witching. But the first written record of finding water with a forked twig is in Georgius Agricola's work, De re metallica, written in 1556.By the way, he discounted the practice.
Forked willow witching

No matter what the origin, divining or dowsing or witching for water is practiced all over the world and despite scientific ridicule, water witches still flourish today. Almost every area has a diviner or two; Wake County, North Carolina boasts more than a dozen. A few of the Wake County dowsers refer to their skill as witching (from the witch hazel, a popular divining rod of the early American settlers), but it's usually called finding a well, spotting a well, or—simply—finding water.

Until his death, Arthur Lee Brown had been witching for twenty-five years and found more than a hundred good wells. Arthur Lee claimed it came in spurts: You found a well for one person, and two or three other prospects cropped up.

Brown started divining by accident. A man came through who could witch, and Arthur Lee found out that he could, too. "Not everybody can do it, you know," he declared with conviction. "It just works for some folks." A freshly cut peach tree twig or a length of grapevine were Brown's favorite tools. He held them both palms down, with his thumbs turned in. The grape vine spun in his hands as he walked over the vein, and the forked stick pointed toward the ground.

Arthur Brown with grapevine branch

Like most diviners, Brown wouldn't even guess why the switch worked. He just knew that it did. "There's a streak of water down under the ground," he explained, "and if you take even one step off to the side, the stick won't move. You have to be right on top of the water."

Traditionally, the most common dowsing rod is a forked (Y-shaped) branch from a tree or bush. Some dowsers prefer branches from particular trees, and some prefer the branches to be freshly cut. Hazel twigs in Europe and witch-hazel in the United States are traditionally commonly chosen, as are branches from willow or peach trees. The two ends on the forked side are held one in each hand with the third (the stem of the "Y") pointing straight ahead. Often the branches are grasped palms down. The dowser then walks slowly over the places where he suspects the target (for example, minerals or water) may be, and the dowsing rod supposedly dips, inclines or twitches when a discovery is made. This method is sometimes known as "Willow Witching".

18th Century Dowser
Many dowsers today use a pair of simple L-shaped metal rods. One rod is held in each hand, with the short arm of the L held upright, and the long arm pointing forward. When something is found, the rods cross over one another making an "X" over the found object. If the object is long and straight, such as a water pipe, the rods will point in opposite directions, showing its orientation. The rods are sometimes fashioned from wire coat hangers, and glass or plastic rods have also been accepted. Straight rods are also sometimes used for the same purposes, and were not uncommon in early 19th century New England. In all cases, the device is in a state of unstable equilibrium from which slight movements may be amplified.

Skeptic James Randi in his "ENCYCLOPEDIA OF CLAIMS, FRAUDS, AND HOAXES OF THE OCCULT AND SUPERNATURAL," notes that dowsers often cannot agree on even the basics of their profession: "Some instructions tell learners never to try dowsing with rubber footwear, while others insist that it helps immeasurably. Some practitioners say that when divining rods cross, that specifically indicates water; others say that water makes the rods diverge to 180 degrees."

I suspect that like writing or baking or painting, each dowser has his or her own method. I know my uncle was successful as was my friend's husband. Neither man would ever take money for dowsing because they believed the talent was a gift from God and to accept money would be wrong.  

You will have to make up your own mind as to whether or not you believe in water witches/dowsers.

Are you a skeptic or a believer?

Mother Earth News
PIONEER WOMEN by Joanna L. Stratton


  1. Caroline, this is just fascinating to me. Yes, I believe in it. I don't know WHY I do, but I think there has got to be something to it, since it's been around for so long and has been successful for so many people. I am enthralled with this blog of yours. Thanks for making my mind work overtime, now! LOL

  2. What an interesting post! I don't know what to believe about water witching. It seems so far-fetched, yet some folks swear by it even today. Maybe it's just one of those things for which science hasn't discovered an explanation yet. In any case, you certainly rounded up a bunch of information for us to chew on, Caroline Thank you! :-)

  3. I believe in it too, even though some in my family believe it is dealing with witch craft or sorcery. As a child, when at my grandmothers, we'd walk all over with a forked stick trying to find water. Never did. However, a few years ago, we tested the theory at a cousins house. They had a little water feature in their garden and when we got near it, the stick definitely twitched and turned down. Interesting post, Caroline!


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