Water witching is a phenomenon that is still practiced in the US—but where did it come from and is it really connected to witches and witchcraft?

Water witching, also known as divining or dowsing, is a practice that is still used—and questioned—to this day. In fact, the United States Geological Survey released a publication in 1917 that discussed the history of water witching and studies of its efficacy. The publication contained within it a plea for people to accept the fact that no substantial proof has ever determined water witching to be an accurate resource for locating water, and to take that information as proof that the practice has been “thoroughly discredited,” moreover suggesting that additional “tests by the United States Geological Survey of this so-called ‘witching’ for water, oil, or other minerals would be a misuse of public funds.”

The same study traces the origins of water witching back to the early 1500s, specifically pointing to 1533, based on the writings of both Georgius Agricola and Paracelsus. What is interesting is that early records of ‘water witching’ didn’t actually have much to do with the idea of the witch—nor were they entirely focused on finding water. Early uses of the dowsing rod were intended to help miners locate veins of minerals, such as silver and lead. Further, while the material of the rod is specified, often listing peach wood, willow, hazel, and witch hazel, the power that causes the dowsing rod to function was actually believed to lie in the vein of minerals rather than in the dowser or dowsing rod.

Dowsing and the Devil

Of course, it makes sense that dowsing didn’t become linked to witches specifically until 1642, when the European witch hunting craze was carried into America by puritan colonists. The dowsing rod was officially attributed its superstitious, devil-inherent qualities in 1662, coincidentally the same year the witch-hunting hysteria took hold of the US, leading to seven trials and four executions of so-called witches a full 30 years before the Salem witch trials.

What was dowsing used for?

The varying uses of the dowsing rod are partly responsible for any contention regarding whether or not dowsing should be considered devil’s work. In 1518, Martin Luther listed dowsing for metals as an example of occultism, thus enforcing the idea that it breaks the first commandment. However, by 1638, mining was in high economic demand, and that’s when the dowsing practice became a recognized technique in both Elizabeth’s royal calamine mines and in silver mines in Wales. Further, in the 17th century, while the dowsing rod was becoming imbued with satanic properties in the US, in France it was being used to track criminals and heretics—until 1701, when its abuse caused it to be forbidden from being employed for purposes of justice.

In other words, not unlike perceptions surrounding the witch herself, the dowsing rod’s stigma shifted based on its political and economical usefulness, and the ambiguity that thus became associated with its practice has created an uncertainty which has withstood even to today. That’s why, despite the fact that no tangible proof has ever validated the efficacy of the dowsing rod, water witching is still a topic of interest, particularly for those who are hoping to find a cheap and easy solution to a problem that should only be resolved by a certified water surveyor.

If you’re ready to start the well-drilling process, do yourself a favor: leave the witches to the ambiguity of their history books and hire a qualified water surveyor to help you source the best site for your well.