Dowsing. Some swear by it, others dismiss it as a con. We take a closer look at the mysterious art of dowsing.
By Elaine Kavanagh.
Dowsing – an age-old, yet simple technique for finding things, or an elaborate hoax? The jury is out. The scientists are baffled because they can’t figure out how it works. Plenty of people have seen it with their own eyes, but that won’t satisfy the men and women in white coats.
Gerry Cremin takes it all in his stride. He’s been dowsing for forty years and is chairman of the Irish Society of Diviners, a group of people interested in divining, dowsing and related fields. “It always fascinated me,” Gerry explains. “I first came across dowsing at a meeting in Dublin in the 1970s. That’s where I learnt to use the rods and the pendulum.”
Dowsing For Water
Finding underground water is the most common use for dowsing. “It’s still fairly common in rural Ireland,” says Gerry. “Of course, there are sceptics, but many in rural Ireland still have great faith in it despite the advent of hydrologists. In the end, they all do the same thing.”
It’s not just in Ireland that you’ll hear about people dowsing for water. A couple of years ago, U.K. water company Severn Trent hit the news when they received this tweet from an Oxford University scientist: “Why, in 2017, are you using divining rods to ‘find’ the location of underwater pipes when there is zero evidence they work?” By way of reply, the company said that they find some of the older methods are just as effective as the new ones, and that as long as the leak is found quickly, both they and their customers are happy.
Several other water companies across the U.K. confirmed that their technicians also occasionally use divining rods. Gerry confirms that dowsing is still practised in Britain, saying that dowsers there sometimes help town councils to locate water. And, he says, it’s still practised in the U.S. and Australia too, particularly in drought-stricken areas of Australia where it is the preferred method for many people.
Interestingly, dowsing practitioners don’t even have to be present on site. According to Gerry, they can work by looking at a map, and google maps is very useful in this regard. “There are some failures, but lots of successes too,” he says.
Finding underground water isn’t the only use for dowsing – people have tried to locate metals, gemstones, oil and even buried treasure with dowsing rods. So, what has Gerry been asked to find over the years? He would occasionally be asked to locate a lost animal or pet, although he says they’re hard to find as they tend to keep moving. Mobile phones and keys are common, too. And of course, wedding or engagement rings. However, Gerry’s preferred focus for his dowsing work is healing, although it’s not something he does professionally.
During a healing session, the dowsing practitioner typically holds a pendulum attached to a chain while asking questions that have a yes or no answer. The direction and intensity of the pendulum’s swings determines the answer. “It’s not always about curing,” Gerry says. “Some people might have quite serious illnesses, like cancer, and they generally come to terms with it.”
Crucially, he must be asked to do this work. “I couldn’t just go out and decide to heal someone. Healing is humbling, it brings us back to basics, and part of that is that the person themselves must ask, they must have a need to be healed.”
Finding stone circles is another great hobby of Gerry’s. “I might go into a field with nothing and pick up the location of an old circle. It doesn’t have an awful significance, but it’s amazing to find them and complete the circle.” Why the interest in stone circles? “When people first came to Ireland after the last Ice Age, they built stone circles as a way of sanctifying the land, and as a meeting place for feasts and the like,” Gerry explains. “Much of the work that diviners and dowsers do came from that lifestyle, although it probably wasn’t as mystical back then, it was probably more essential.”
Evidence that dowsing was practised in ancient times is scarce, but it can be found if you look hard enough – the 8,000-year-old Tassili Cave drawings, for instance, includes an image of a person dowsing. In more modern times, it was used to find metals in Germany during the Middle Ages and was denounced as the work of the devil by Martin Luther.
How Does It Work?
Clearly there are a range of opinions when it comes to dowsing. So, does it really work, and if so, how? Well, there are several theories, so you can take your pick depending on your persuasion. One possibility is that dowsers pick up on tiny changes in the Earth’s magnetic field caused by the presence of water or other materials under the ground. This theory is promising because of recent exciting discoveries about a mineral called magnetite.
Animals amaze us with their sense of direction but it’s no accident that they know exactly where they’re going. It’s because of magnetoreception – that’s the ability to use the earth’s magnetic field to work out a direction or location. We don’t know exactly how magnetoreception works but magnetite might be the answer. This mineral has been found in the noses of fish and the beaks of birds. It has also been found in the human brain. But there’s more.
In 2019, researchers discovered that humans can indeed sense the Earth’s magnetic field, although it seems to be something we do unconsciously. In a lab-simulated magnetic field, people’s brain waves changed in response to changes in the magnetic field. So, is dowsing a skill we all have because of magnetite in our brains? And if someone had more of it, would that make them better at dowsing?
Gerry doesn’t share this view of people with stronger ability. He thinks that most people can dowse. “There is a higher power somewhere along the line and the dowsing practitioner is acting as a conduit for it,” he says, although he agrees with the magnetic field explanation, saying that humans would have had this instinctive knowledge from prehistoric times.
Cometh The Hour, Cometh The Man
Sceptics have a different explanation for what happens when someone points a dowsing rod. They put it down to ideomotor movements – they are the unconscious movements our bodies make based on what we expect to happen. This theory could also explain the workings of a Ouija board, and it does seem to be backed up by the lack of scientific evidence for dowsing.
Scientists seeking concrete proof for dowsing have carried out many studies, with nothing to show for them. In fact, for fifty years, an American tv magician called James Randi offered cash rewards to anyone who could prove their paranormal abilities under lab testing conditions. The Randi Prize, as it was called, began life with an offer of $1,000 in 1964 and was gradually increased, reaching an impressive $1m in 1996. Many have tried to claim the money – including some dowsers – but none have succeeded. Sadly, the One Million Dollar Challenge came to an end when Randi retired in 2015.
Gerry agrees that dowsing doesn’t work well under scientific conditions, but he has a straightforward explanation. “Dowsing fulfils a need, and the dowsing practitioner must be fulfilling a need. Cometh the hour, cometh the man,” he says. But under scientific conditions, there is no need, it is merely required to satisfy curiosity and that is not enough. “When it’s needed, it happens.”
Beyond Our Understanding
Perhaps dowsing is one of those phenomena that escapes human understanding. Some might say it works regardless of whether science agrees or not. Perhaps they have a point. Other more cynical souls might grumble that underground water is so prevalent – particularly here in Ireland – you could drill a hole anywhere and find it. Plus, there is always the possibility that dowsing practitioners are simply able to read the landscape’s geographical clues and can therefore make an educated guess as to where water might be.
Gerry agrees about the widespread availability of water under the ground. “You’d probably find water anywhere you dig,” he says, “but with dowsing, you’re more concerned with finding a good supply of quality drinking water, and a decent volume. There’s a great sense of satisfaction about it. It’s like striking oil, you get this big gush coming out of the ground.”
The Irish Society of Diviners meets at regular intervals in Dublin. New members are always welcome to come along for a cuppa and a chat with like-minded people, where they can learn to use the tools of the trade.
Like articles about natural healing? Check this one on the “cure”.