/ Bibliothèque nationale de France

Water divining is (not) rocket science!

People think they’re special, sorcerers, or charlatans. Regardless, a few hundred years later, the mystery is still intact.

A pair of rods in hand, linked to together to form a "v", the dowser walks to and fro over the ground under which the owner or operator hopes to find water and dig a well or supply greenhouses. Walking slowly and silently, rods horizontally in front of him, he stops – as if controlled by an unseen force, the rods violently point toward the ground, indicating a source of water. In principle, it’s just a question of digging. In principle...

Traditional know-how

The issues all boil down to a single and obvious observation. No water - no life!

Although today's dowsers can buy their equipment in esoteric stores in major cities, the discipline dates back to antiquity. Eskimos, Sumerians, Egyptians, Hebrews, Celts, Greeks, Romans – they all had men capable of detecting the presence of water, metals and treasures beneath their feet. But their famous rods were also used to communicate with the gods for divination purposes. In the 15th century, German alchemists gave the discipline a makeover by baptizing it "rhabdomancy" (from the Greek rhabdos, meaning a rod, and manteia, meaning divination). The western world was slowly but surely conquered. Philosophers and writers defended their faith in the rods that it seems were worn by miners on their belts. The rods made of fig tree wood, rushes or cane have been harshly treated by history. And although Luther condemned their use, a hundred years later during the reign of Louis XIII, it was thanks to them that Baron de Beausoleil and his wife discovered almost 150 mines all over France (french). It guaranteed the good reputation of dowsing throughout Europe. But the future industrial revolution changed all that with an important invention – pipes. No need to look for springs, water could now be channeled wherever it was needed. However, and fortunately for dowsers, there are still many non-irrigated areas where owners hope to find underground water.

Mystery and plumb bobs

Dowsing was originally considered to be some kind of witchcraft, but the first serious scientific research changed that. The chemist Michel-Eugène Chevreul was the first in 1810 to demonstrate that the movements of the pendulum used by the dowser to locate underground streams of water on a map, were the result of self-suggestion, and not a dark force. Later, the physicist Yves Rocard investigated too. In 1962, he propounded the theory that dowsers are quite simply more sensitive than other people to the earth's magnetic field, which is modified by the presence of water. The dowser’s magnetic field reacts to the telluric currents causing the pendulum to turn or the diving rods to point down. Any self-respecting dowser begins by using "mental conventions" - almost spells. "I want to be sensitive to the circulation of water under my feet and only that," they say before going to work.

What’s the conclusion? Is dowsing a science with a hint of esotericism about it or esotericism that makes use of science to establish its credibility? Whatever the case may be several rigorous experiments have shown that dowsers do not get better than chance results. And any dowser worthy of the name would not set out without first finding out about the nature of the soil and the vegetation - an excellent indicator of underground water. There is also no doubt that in Europe finding underground water can’t be compared to looking for a needle in a haystack...

However, dowsers continue to ply their trade. We could ask how our ancestors managed to find water without the means we now have at our disposal... The mystery remains, and any doubts are charitable ones. After all, dowsers only try to find water (or not!).

Main picture: / Bibliothèque nationale de France

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