Dowsing is a type of divination employed in attempts to locate groundwater, buried metals or ores, gemstones, oil, gravesites, and many other objects and materials without the use of scientific apparatus.
Dowsing is considered pseudoscience and there is no scientific evidence that it is any more effective than random chance.
Dowsers often achieve good results because random chance has a high probability of finding water in favorable terrain.
Dowsing is also known as divining (especially in reference to the interpretation of results), doodle bugging (particularly in the United States, in searching for petroleum) or (when searching specifically for water) water finding, water witching (in the United States) or water dowsing.
A Y-shaped twig or rod, or two L-shaped ones—individually called a dowsing rod, divining rod, “vining rod“, or witching rod—are sometimes used during dowsing, although some dowsers use other equipment or no equipment at all. Dowsing appears to have arisen in the context of Renaissance magic in Germany and it remains popular among believers in Forteana or radiesthesia.
The motion of dowsing rods is now generally attributed to the ideomotor response. The ideomotor phenomenon is a psychological phenomenon wherein a subject makes motions unconsciously. In less complex terms, dowsing rods only move due to accidental or involuntary movements of the person using it.
As early as 1518 Martin Luther listed dowsing for metals as an act that broke the first commandment (i.e., as occultism).
The 1550 edition of Sebastian Münster’s Cosmographia contains a woodcut of a dowser with forked rod in hand walking over a cutaway image of a mining operation.
The rod is labeled “Virgula Divina – Glück rüt” (Latin: divine rod; German “Wünschelrute”: fortune rod or stick), but there is no text accompanying the woodcut. By 1556 Georgius Agricola’s treatment of mining and smelting of ore, De Re Metallica, included a detailed description of dowsing for the metal ore.
…There are many great contentions between miners concerning the forked twig, for some say that it is of the greatest use in discovering veins, and others deny it. … All alike grasp the forks of the twig with their hands, clenching their fists, it being necessary that the clenched fingers should be held toward the sky in order that the twig should be raised at that end where the two branches meet. Then they wander hither and thither at random through mountainous regions. It is said that the moment they place their feet on a vein the twig immediately turns and twists, and so by its action discloses the vein ; when they move their feet again and go away from that spot the twig becomes once more immobile. …
In the sixteenth century, German deep mining technology was in enormous demand all over Europe. German miners were licensed to live and work in Elizabethan England; particularly in the Stannaries of Devon & Cornwall and in Cumbria. In other parts of England, the technique was used in Elizabeth’s royal mines for calamine. By 1638 German miners were recorded using the technique in silver mines in Wales.
In 1691 the philosopher John Locke, who was born in the West Country, used the term deusing-rod for the old Latin name virgula divina. So, dowse is synonymous with the strike, hence the phrases: to dowse/strike a light, to dowse/strike a sail.
In the lead-mining area of the Mendip Hills in Somerset in the 17th century the natural philosopher Robert Boyle, inspired by the writings of Agricola, watched a practitioner try to find “latent veins of metals“. Boyle saw the hazel divining rod stoop in the hands of the diviner, who protested that he was not applying any force to the twig; Boyle accepted the man’s genuine belief but himself remained unconvinced.
Although dowsing in search of water is considered an ancient practice by some, old texts about searching for water do not mention using the divining rod, and the first account of this practice was in 1568. Sir William F. Barrett wrote in his 1911 book Psychical Research that:
…in a recent admirable Life of St. Teresa of Spain, the following incident is narrated: Teresa in 1568 was offered the site for a convent to which there was only one objection, there was no water supply; happily, a Friar Antonio came up with a twig in his hand, stopped at a certain spot and appeared to be making the sign of the cross; but Teresa says, “Really I cannot be sure if it were the sign he made, at any rate he made some movement with the twig and then he said, ‘ Dig just here ‘ ; they dug, and lo ! a plentiful fount of water gushed forth, excellent for ‘drinking, copious for washing, and it never ran dry.’ ” As the writer of this Life remarks : ” Teresa, not having heard of dowsing, has no explanation for this event,” and regarded it as a miracle. This, I believe, is the first historical reference to dowsing for water.
In 1662, dowsing was declared to be “superstitious, or rather satanic” by a Jesuit, Gaspar Schott, though he later noted that he wasn’t sure that the devil was always responsible for the movement of the rod.
In the South of France in the 17th century, it was used in tracking criminals and heretics. Its abuse led to a decree of the inquisition in 1701, forbidding its employment for purposes of justice.
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 is expected to dip, incline or twitch when a discovery is made. This method is sometimes known as “willow witching“.
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.
If the object is long and straight, such as a water pipe, the rods may point in opposite directions, showing its orientation. The rods may be fashioned from wire coat hangers or wire flags used for locating utilities. 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.
Science writers such as William Benjamin Carpenter (1877), Millais Culpin (1920), and Martin Gardner (1957) considered the movement of dowsing rods to be the result of unconscious muscular action.
This view is widely accepted amongst the scientific community and also by some in the dowsing community. The dowsing apparatus is known to amplify slight movements of the hands caused by a phenomenon known as the ideomotor response: people’s subconscious minds may influence their bodies without consciously deciding to take action. This would make the dowsing rod susceptible to the dowsers’s subconscious knowledge or perception; but also to confirmation bias.
Psychologist David Marks in a 1986 article in Nature included dowsing in a list of “effects which until recently were claimed to be paranormal but which can now be explained from within orthodox science.” Specifically, dowsing could be explained in terms of sensory cues, expectancy effects, and probability.
Science writer Peter Daempfle has noted that when dowsing is subjected to scientific testing, it fails. Daempfle has written that although some dowsers claim success, this can be attributed to the underground water table being distributed relatively uniformly in certain areas.
In regard to dowsing and its use in archaeology, Kenneth Feder has written that “the vast majority of archaeologists don’t use dowsing, because they don’t believe it works.”
Psychologist Chris French has noted that “dowsing does not work when it is tested under properly controlled conditions that rule out the use of other cues to indicate target location.”