Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

The divining rod: A history of water witching, with a bibliography

January 1, 1917

The use of a forked twig, or so-called divining rod, in locating minerals, finding hidden treasure, or detecting criminals is a curious superstition that has been a subject of discussion since the middle of the sixteenth century and still has a strong hold on the popular mind, even in this country, as is shown by the large number of inquiries received each year by the United States Geological Survey as to its efficacy, especially for locating underground water, and the persistent demands that it be made a subject of investigation by the Survey. The bibliography shows that a truly astonishing number of books and pamphlets have been written on the subject. The purpose of the present brief paper is not to add another contribution to this enormous volume of uncanny literature but merely to furnish a reply to the numerous inquiries that are continually being received from all parts of the country. The outline of the history of the subject presented in the following pages will probably enable most honest inquirers to appreciate the practical uselessness of "water witching" and other applications of the divining rod, but those who wish to delve further into the mysteries of the subject are referred to the literature cited in the bibliography, in which they will find reports in painful detail of exhaustive investigations and pseudo-investigations of every phase of the subject and every imaginable explanation of the supposed phenomena.

It is doubtful whether so much investigation and discussion have been bestowed on any other subject with such absolute lack of positive results. It is difficult to see how for practical purposes the entire matter could be more thoroughly discredited, and it should be obvious to everyone that further 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.

A large number of more complicated devices for locating water or other minerals are closely related to the forked twig. A favorite trick for appealing to uneducated persons and yet making specific disproof impossible is to give as the working principle of such a device some newly discovered and vaguely understood phenomenon, as, for example, radioactivity. Many such devices have been in existence since the seventeenth century, and almost without exception the claims that are made for them are very great. If any genuine instrument were invented its merits would no doubt in time become well recognized, as have those of other real inventions. The magnetic needle used in detecting iron ore is, of course, not included in this category of spurious instruments.

It is by no means true that all persons using a forked twig or some other device for locating water or other mineral are intentional deceivers. Some of them are doubtless men of good character and benevolent intentions. However, as anything that can be deeply veiled in mystery affords a good opportunity for swindlers, there can be no reasonable doubt that many of the large group of professional finders of water, oil, or other minerals who take pay for their "services" or for the sale of their "instruments" are deliberately defrauding the people, and that the total amount of money they obtain is large.

To all inquirers the United States Geological Survey therefore gives the advice not to expend any money for the services of any "water witch" or for the use or purchase of any machine or instrument devised for locating underground water or other minerals.

Publication Year 1917
Title The divining rod: A history of water witching, with a bibliography
DOI 10.3133/wsp416
Authors Arthur Jackson Ellis
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Water Supply Paper
Series Number 416
Index ID wsp416
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse