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by Carrie Jeskanen

Raymond C. Wiley, one of the founders of the American Society of Dowsers, has defined dowsing as “the exercise of the human faculty which allows one to obtain information in a manner beyond the scope and power of the standard human physical senses of sight, sound, touch, etc.” (American Society of Dowsers [ASD] online, 2013). This helps us to understand how some dowsers believe that their ability is “a psychic experience closely related to some kind of mental radar” (Baum 1974: 28).

The American Society of Dowsers (ASD) states that the origin of the verb to “dowse” is uncertain. Vogt and Golde note that the Romans used the phrase virgula divina which means “divining rod”, but not with regard to water (1958: 520). ASD member, Lloyd Youngblood, states that John Locke wrote about the “dowsing rod” in an essay where he spoke of how a person could use it to “devise or discover water and precious minerals” (ASD online, 2013). Locke took the phrase “dowsing rod” from the Cornish language where dewsys meant goddess and rhod meant tree branch.

Dowsing (also known as water witching or water divining) has evolved over the decades, especially in North America, from a practice mostly limited to searching for water to one where a person can “dowse” for anything. However, before we examine current practices, it is important to first take a historical look at dowsing in order to have a more complete understanding.

According to the American Society of Dowsers’ website, there is archaeological evidence of dowsing going back to ancient times. For example, in the Tassili n’Ajjer mountain range in the Sahara, there are caves that have prehistoric mural paintings that appear to depict a dowser with his forked branch looking for water. These murals date back 8000 years. More recent research reveals that water witching was a common practice in rural American farm life in the mid-20th century (Deming 2002). According to anthropological researchers, Vogt and Golde, the term “water witch” can be found in the historical record after 1775 when it was used “in newspaper columns…in connection with witches and witchcraft. And it is this association with witchcraft that may account for the American term ‘water witching'” (1958:522).

Anthropologists during this time period had a restricted view of water witching and saw it simply as a fascinating “cultural phenomenon” (Deming 2002:452). In other words, water witching belonged to folklore. Vogt and Golde point out that this folklore was most likely carried to the United States by German immigrants as German miners had used the dowsing technique since the late 16th or early 17th century (1958:521). Interestingly, Vogt’s and Golde’s study found that, unlike the rich and colorful European folklore, “the American diviner takes a more pragmatic attitude. He is interested more in the practical consequences” (1958: 526). Yet, they point out that the difference in approach is minor and that “if we look closely enough, we do find a body of beliefs, implicit and explicit, that go along with water witching in this country” (1958:526).

Should we view dowsing or water witching solely through the restrictive lens of folklore? A review of the literature and various sources on dowsing reveal that there have been numerous cases where dowsers have been able to successfully find sources of water, and what is more predict the depth at which it can be found. Therefore, this is a phenomenon that cannot simply be deemed a social construction. What is important to note is that there is a long standing tension that exists between scientists who regard water dowsing as a superstitious practice and the dowsers who wholeheartedly believe in their abilities.

Part of the problem stems from the fact that there is no agreement as to how the practice of dowsing works despite the various theories that have been proffered. Some people claim that dowsers are sensitive to electromagnetic changes in the earth. However, this does not explain how some people have been able to dowse from a great distance, sometimes from thousands of miles away (d’Aulaire 1976). And there are those who believe that dowsers have some other type of skill or power — often seen as a sort of sixth sense. Baum suggests that “perhaps the ability to dowse is the vestige of some such animal instinct that only a few civilized men still possess” (1974: 6). We can find a similar notion of the sixth sense as a type of evolutionary ability in Thurschwell’s discussion of telepathy (2009). Whatever the point of view may be, the sixth sense perspective, once eschewed by pragmatic dowsers (such as farmers), has now transitioned into a common explanation of how dowsing “works”.

In current times, dowsing has become much more than divining water. In fact, dowsers on the American Society of Dowsers’ website describe dowsing as simply the ability to connect to a higher state of guidance- to ask questions and get answers….Dowsing is a tool that can aid us in expanding our abilities to use a greater proportion of our brains during which whole new possibilities become available to us. By using dowsing as a tool you can access your higher self, your inner knowing. It is a technique that can be learned to connect to your subconscious (ASD online, 2013).

Thus, in North America, dowsing has taken on a broader meaning where the practice can cover practically anything. According to Hope (1996), there has been a major decline in the United States related to the idea of dowsing for water. However he states that this should not be a surprise as “we are no longer a society of ruralists and farmers with the need for individual water wells”. For example, each year the American Dowsers Society, located in Danville, Vermont, holds a convention for its members. Hope’s article points out that workshop topics range from such things as “Dowsing– a Feng Shui to Your Consciousness” to “Dowsing and Emotional Well-Being” (1996).

A review of the U.S. and Canadian Dowsing Societies’ websites confirms that dowsing today is much more than just looking for water. The American Society of Dowsers offers the following neutral and very open definition: dowsing is “the ancient practice of using simple tools to interpret the answers to questions you ask” (American Society of Dowsers online, 2013). This general definition allows for a broader membership and more opportunities for people to practice the use of dowsing in many different ways. According to the ASD website, “simple tools” can consist of items ranging from simple metal Y-rods to beautiful pendulums (conveniently available for purchase through their website).

We can now find dowsers using their skills in forensic settings looking for missing people as well as in the area of health and well-being. Perhaps one of the more interesting aspects of the evolution of dowsing is the “feminization” of the membership. That is, the field of dowsing is no longer dominated by male farmers located in rural locations. Instead, we find that dowsers, both male and female, are located in urban and rural settings throughout North America. Despite the many questions that still surround the practice of dowsing, it can certainly be stated that it is a practice that has survived centuries of skepticism and will likely continue to thrive indefinitely.


American Society of Dowsers
http://dowsers.org/, accessed February 9, 2013.

Baum, Joseph
1974 The Beginner’s Handbook of Dowsing. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc.

Canadian Society of Dowsers
N.d. http://www.canadiandowsers.org, accessed February 9, 2013.

d’Aulaire, Emily and Per Ola
1976 The Forked Stick Phenomenon, The Saturday Evening Post, May/June.

Deming, David
2002 Water Witching and Dowsing, Ground Water 40(4):450-452.

Hope, Jack
1996 Urban New Agers Have Taken Over the Art of Dowsing, Smithsonian 26(10)

Thurschwell, Pamela
2009 The Erotics of Telepathy: The British SPR’s Experiments in Intimacy. In The

Sixth Sense Reader. David Howes, ed. Pp.183-207. New York: Berg.

Vogt, Evon Z. and Peggy Golde
1958 Some Aspects of the Folklore of Water Witching in the United States, The Journal of American Folklore 71(282):519-531.