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The Divining Rod

Source: Curious Myths Of The Middle Ages

From the remotest period a rod has been regarded as the symbol of
power and authority, and Holy Scripture employs it in the popular
sense. Thus David speaks of "Thy rod and Thy staff comforting me;" and
Moses works his miracles before Pharaoh with the rod as emblem of
Divine commission. It was his rod which became a serpent, which turned
the water of Egypt into blood, which opened the waves of the Red Sea
and restored them to their former level, which "smote the rock of
stone so that the water gushed out abundantly." The rod of Aaron acted
an oracular part in the contest with the princes; laid up before the
ark, it budded and brought forth almonds. In this instance we have it
no longer as a symbol of authority, but as a means of divining the
will of God. And as such it became liable to abuse; thus Hosea rebukes
the chosen people for practising similar divinations. "My people ask
counsel at their stocks, and their staff declareth unto them."[23]

Long before this, Jacob had made a different use of rods, employing
them as a charm to make his father-in-law's sheep bear pied and
spotted lambs.

We find rhabdomancy a popular form of divination among the Greeks, and
also among the Romans. Cicero in his "De Officiis" alludes to it. "If
all that is needful for our nourishment and support arrives to us by
means of some divine rod, as people say, then each of us, free from
all care and trouble, may give himself up to the exclusive pursuit of
study and science."

Probably it is to this rod that the allusion of Ennius, as the agent
in discovering hidden treasures, quoted in the first book of his "De
Divinatione," refers.

According to Vetranius Maurus, Varro left a satire on the "Virgula
divina," which has not been preserved. Tacitus tells us that the
Germans practised some sort of divination by means of rods. "For the
purpose their method is simple. They cut a rod off some fruit-tree
into bits, and after having distinguished them by various marks, they
cast them into a white cloth.... Then the priest thrice draws each
piece, and explains the oracle according to the marks." Ammianus
Marcellinus says that the Alains employed an osier rod.

The fourteenth law of the Frisons ordered that the discovery of
murders should be made by means of divining rods used in Church. These
rods should be laid before the altar, and on the sacred relics, after
which God was to be supplicated to indicate the culprit. This was
called the Lot of Rods, or Tan-teen, the Rod of Rods.

But the middle ages was the date of the full development of the
superstition, and the divining rod was believed to have efficacy in
discovering hidden treasures, veins of precious metal, springs of
water, thefts, and murders. The first notice of its general use among
late writers is in the "Testamentum Novum," lib. i. cap. 25, of Basil
Valentine, a Benedictine monk of the fifteenth century. Basil speaks
of the general faith in and adoption of this valuable instrument for
the discovery of metals, which is carried by workmen in mines, either
in their belts or in their caps. He says that there are seven names by
which this rod is known, and to its excellences under each title he
devotes a chapter of his book. The names are: Divine Rod, Shining Rod,
Leaping Rod, Transcendent Rod, Trembling Rod, Dipping Rod, Superior
Rod. In his admirable treatise on metals, Agricola speaks of the rod
in terms of disparagement; he considers its use as a relic of ancient
magical forms, and he says that it is only irreligious workmen who
employ it in their search after metals. Goclenius, however, in his
treatise on the virtue of plants, stoutly does battle for the
properties of the hazel rod. Whereupon Roberti, a Flemish Jesuit,
falls upon him tooth and nail, disputes his facts, overwhelms him with
abuse, and gibbets him for popular ridicule. Andreas Libavius, a
writer I have already quoted in my article on the Wandering Jew,
undertook a series of experiments upon the hazel divining rod, and
concluded that there was truth in the popular belief. The Jesuit
Kircher also "experimentalized several times on wooden rods which were
declared to be sympathetic with regard to certain metals, by placing
them on delicate pivots in equilibrium; but they never turned on the
approach of metal." (De Arte Magnetica.) However, a similar course of
experiments over water led him to attribute to the rod the power of
indicating subterranean springs and water-courses; "I would not affirm
it," he says, "unless I had established the fact by my own

Dechales, another Jesuit, author of a treatise on natural springs, and
of a huge tome entitled "Mundus Mathematicus," declared in the latter
work, that no means of discovering sources is equal to the divining
rod; and he quotes a friend of his who, with a hazel rod in his hand,
could discover springs with the utmost precision and facility, and
could trace on the surface of the ground the course of a subterranean
conduit. Another writer, Saint-Romain, in his "Science dA(C)gagA(C)e des
ChimA"res de l'A%cole," exclaims, "Is it not astonishing to see a rod,
which is held firmly in the hands, bow itself and turn visibly in the
direction of water or metal, with more or less promptitude, according
as the metal or the water are near or remote from the surface!"

In 1659 the Jesuit Gaspard Schott writes that the rod is used in every
town of Germany, and that he had frequent opportunity of seeing it
used in the discovery of hidden treasures. "I searched with the
greatest care," he adds, "into the question whether the hazel rod had
any sympathy with gold and silver, and whether any natural property
set it in motion. In like manner I tried whether a ring of metal, held
suspended by a thread in the midst of a tumbler, and which strikes the
hours, is moved by any similar force. I ascertained that these effects
could only have rise from the deception of those holding the rod or
the pendulum, or, may be, from some diabolic impulsion, or, more
likely still, because imagination sets the hand in motion."

The Sieur le Royer, a lawyer of Rouen, in 1674, published his "TraitA(C)
du BActon universel," in which he gives an account of a trial made with
the rod in the presence of Father Jean FranASec.ois, who had ridiculed the
operation in his treatise on the science of waters, published at
Rennes in 1655, and which succeeded in convincing the blasphemer of
the divine Rod. Le Royer denies to it the power of picking out
criminals, which had been popularly attributed to it, and as had been
unhesitatingly claimed for it by Debrio in his "Disquisitio Magica."

And now I am brought to the extraordinary story of Jacques Aymar,
which attracted the attention of Europe to the marvellous properties
of the divining rod. I shall give the history of this man in full, as
such an account is rendered necessary by the mutilated versions I have
seen current in English magazine articles, which follow the lead of
Mrs. Crowe, who narrates the earlier portion of this impostor's
career, but says nothing of his exposA(C) and downfall.

On the 5th July, 1692, at about ten o'clock in the evening, a
wine-seller of Lyons and his wife were assassinated in their cellar,
and their money carried off. On the morrow, the officers of justice
arrived, and examined the premises. Beside the corpses, lay a large
bottle wrapped in straw, and a bloody hedging bill, which undoubtedly
had been the instrument used to accomplish the murder. Not a trace of
those who had committed the horrible deed was to be found, and the
magistrates were quite at fault as to the direction in which they
should turn for a clew to the murderer or murderers.

At this juncture a neighbor reminded the magistrates of an incident
which had taken place four years previous. It was this. In 1688 a
theft of clothes had been made in Grenoble. In the parish of CrA'le
lived a man named Jacques Aymar, supposed to be endowed with the
faculty of using the divining rod. This man was sent for. On reaching
the spot where the theft had been committed, his rod moved in his
hand. He followed the track indicated by the rod, and it continued to
rotate between his fingers as long as he followed a certain direction,
but ceased to turn if he diverged from it in the smallest degree.
Guided by his rod, Aymar went from street to street, till he was
brought to a standstill before the prison gates. These could not be
opened without leave of the magistrate, who hastened to witness the
experiment. The gates were unlocked, and Aymar, under the same
guidance, directed his steps towards four prisoners lately
incarcerated. He ordered the four to be stood in a line, and then he
placed his foot on that of the first. The rod remained immovable. He
passed to the second, and the rod turned at once. Before the third
prisoner there were no signs; the fourth trembled, and begged to be
heard. He owned himself the thief, along with the second, who also
acknowledged the theft, and mentioned the name of the receiver of the
stolen goods. This was a farmer in the neighborhood of Grenoble. The
magistrate and officers visited him and demanded the articles he had
obtained. The farmer denied all knowledge of the theft and all
participation in the booty. Aymar, however, by means of his rod,
discovered the secreted property, and restored it to the persons from
whom it had been stolen.

On another occasion Aymar had been in quest of a spring of water, when
he felt his rod turn sharply in his hand. On digging at the spot,
expecting to discover an abundant source, the body of a murdered woman
was found in a barrel, with a rope twisted round her neck. The poor
creature was recognized as a woman of the neighborhood who had
vanished four months before. Aymar went to the house which the victim
had inhabited, and presented his rod to each member of the household.
It turned upon the husband of the deceased, who at once took to

The magistrates of Lyons, at their wits' ends how to discover the
perpetrators of the double murder in the wine shop, urged the
Procureur du Roi to make experiment of the powers of Jacques Aymar.
The fellow was sent for, and he boldly asserted his capacity for
detecting criminals, if he were first brought to the spot of the
murder, so as to be put en rapport with the murderers.

He was at once conducted to the scene of the outrage, with the rod in
his hand. This remained stationary as he traversed the cellar, till he
reached the spot where the body of the wine seller had lain; then the
stick became violently agitated, and the man's pulse rose as though he
were in an access of fever. The same motions and symptoms manifested
themselves when he reached the place where the second victim had lain.

Having thus received his impression, Aymar left the cellar, and,
guided by his rod, or rather by an internal instinct, he ascended into
the shop, and then stepping into the street, he followed from one to
another, like a hound upon the scent, the track of the murderers. It
conducted him into the court of the archiepiscopal palace, across it,
and down to the gate of the Rhone. It was now evening, and the city
gates being all closed, the quest of blood was relinquished for the

Next morning Aymar returned to the scent. Accompanied by three
officers, he left the gate, and descended the right bank of the Rhone.
The rod gave indications of there having been three involved in the
murder, and he pursued the traces till two of them led to a gardener's
cottage. Into this he entered, and there he asserted with warmth,
against the asseverations of the proprietor to the contrary, that the
fugitives had entered his room, had seated themselves at his table,
and had drunk wine out of one of the bottles which he indicated. Aymar
tested each of the household with his rod, to see if they had been in
contact with the murderers. The rod moved over the two children only,
aged respectively ten and nine years. These little things, on being
questioned, answered, with reluctance, that during their father's
absence on Sunday morning, against his express commands, they had left
the door open, and that two men, whom they described, had come in
suddenly upon them, and had seated themselves and made free with the
wine in the bottle pointed out by the man with the rod. This first
verification of the talents of Jacques Aymar convinced some of the
sceptical, but the Procurateur GA(C)nA(C)ral forbade the prosecution of the
experiment till the man had been further tested.

As already stated, a hedging bill had been discovered, on the scene of
the murder, smeared with blood, and unquestionably the weapon with
which the crime had been committed. Three bills from the same maker,
and of precisely the same description, were obtained, and the four
were taken into a garden, and secretly buried at intervals. Aymar was
then brought, staff in hand, into the garden, and conducted over the
spots where lay the bills. The rod began to vibrate as his feet stood
upon the place where was concealed the bill which had been used by the
assassins, but was motionless elsewhere. Still unsatisfied, the four
bills were exhumed and concealed anew. The comptroller of the province
himself bandaged the sorcerer's eyes, and led him by the hand from
place to place. The divining rod showed no signs of movement till it
approached the blood-stained weapon, when it began to oscillate.

The magistrates were now so far satisfied as to agree that Jacques
Aymar should be authorized to follow the trail of the murderers, and
have a company of archers to follow him.

Guided by his rod, Aymar now recommenced his pursuit. He continued
tracing down the right bank of the Rhone till he came to half a league
from the bridge of Lyons. Here the footprints of three men were
observed in the sand, as though engaged in entering a boat. A rowing
boat was obtained, and Aymar, with his escort, descended the river; he
found some difficulty in following the trail upon water; still he was
able, with a little care, to detect it. It brought him under an arch
of the bridge of Vienne, which boats rarely passed beneath. This
proved that the fugitives were without a guide. The way in which this
curious journey was made was singular. At intervals Aymar was put
ashore to test the banks with his rod, and ascertain whether the
murderers had landed. He discovered the places where they had slept,
and indicated the chairs or benches on which they had sat. In this
manner, by slow degrees, he arrived at the military camp of Sablon,
between Vienne and Saint-Valier. There Aymar felt violent agitation,
his cheeks flushed, and his pulse beat with rapidity. He penetrated
the crowds of soldiers, but did not venture to use his rod, lest the
men should take it ill, and fall upon him. He could not do more
without special authority, and was constrained to return to Lyons. The
magistrates then provided him with the requisite powers, and he went
back to the camp. Now he declared that the murderers were not there.
He recommenced his pursuit, and descended the Rhone again as far as

On entering the town he ascertained by means of his rod that those
whom he was pursuing had parted company. He traversed several streets,
then crowded on account of the annual fair, and was brought to a
standstill before the prison doors. One of the murderers was within,
he declared; he would track the others afterwards. Having obtained
permission to enter, he was brought into the presence of fourteen or
fifteen prisoners. Amongst these was a hunchback, who had only an hour
previously been incarcerated on account of a theft he had committed at
the fair. Aymar applied his rod to each of the prisoners in
succession: it turned upon the hunchback. The sorcerer ascertained
that the other two had left the town by a little path leading into the
Nismes road. Instead of following this track, he returned to Lyons
with the hunchback and the guard. At Lyons a triumph awaited him. The
hunchback had hitherto protested his innocence, and declared that he
had never set foot in Lyons. But as he was brought to that town by the
way along which Aymar had ascertained that he had left it, the fellow
was recognized at the different houses where he had lodged the night,
or stopped for food. At the little town of Bagnols, he was confronted
with the host and hostess of a tavern where he and his comrades had
slept, and they swore to his identity, and accurately described his
companions: their description tallied with that given by the children
of the gardener. The wretched man was so confounded by this
recognition, that he avowed having staid there, a few days before,
along with two ProvenASec.als. These men, he said, were the criminals; he
had been their servant, and had only kept guard in the upper room
whilst they committed the murders in the cellar.

On his arrival in Lyons he was committed to prison, and his trial was
decided on. At his first interrogation he told his tale precisely as
he had related it before, with these additions: the murderers spoke
patois, and had purchased two bills. At ten o'clock in the evening all
three had entered the wine shop. The ProvenASec.als had a large bottle
wrapped in straw, and they persuaded the publican and his wife to
descend with them into the cellar to fill it, whilst he, the
hunchback, acted as watch in the shop. The two men murdered the
wine-seller and his wife with their bills, and then mounted to the
shop, where they opened the coffer, and stole from it one hundred and
thirty crowns, eight louis-d'ors, and a silver belt. The crime
accomplished, they took refuge in the court of a large house,--this
was the archbishop's palace, indicated by Aymar,--and passed the night

in it. Next day, early, they left Lyons, and only stopped for a moment
at a gardener's cottage. Some way down the river, they found a boat
moored to the bank. This they loosed from its mooring and entered.
They came ashore at the spot pointed out by the man with the stick.
They staid some days in the camp at Sablon, and then went on to

Aymar was now sent in quest of the other murderers. He resumed their
trail at the gate of Beaucaire, and that of one of them, after
considerable dA(C)tours, led him to the prison doors of Beaucaire, and
he asked to be allowed to search among the prisoners for his man. This
time he was mistaken. The second fugitive was not within; but the
jailer affirmed that a man whom he described--and his description
tallied with the known appearance of one of the ProvenASec.als--had called
at the gate shortly after the removal of the hunchback to inquire
after him, and on learning of his removal to Lyons, had hurried off
precipitately. Aymar now followed his track from the prison, and this
brought him to that of the third criminal. He pursued the double scent
for some days. But it became evident that the two culprits had been
alarmed at what had transpired in Beaucaire, and were flying from
France. Aymar traced them to the frontier, and then returned to Lyons.

On the 30th of August, 1692, the poor hunchback was, according to
sentence, broken on the wheel, in the Place des Terreaux. On his way
to execution he had to pass the wine shop. There the recorder publicly
read his sentence, which had been delivered by thirty judges. The
criminal knelt and asked pardon of the poor wretches in whose murder
he was involved, after which he continued his course to the place
fixed for his execution.

It may be well here to give an account of the authorities for this
extraordinary story. There are three circumstantial accounts, and
numerous letters written by the magistrate who sat during the trial,
and by an eye-witness of the whole transaction, men honorable and
disinterested, upon whose veracity not a shadow of doubt was supposed
to rest by their contemporaries.

M. Chauvin, Doctor of Medicine, published a "Lettre A Mme. la
Marquise de Senozan, sur les moyens dont on s'est servi pour dA(C)couvrir
les complices d'un assassinat commis A Lyon, le 5 Juillet, 1692."
Lyons, 1692. The procA"s-verbal of the Procureur du Roi, M. de
Vanini, is also extant, and published in the Physique occulte of the
AbbA(C) de Vallemont.

Pierre Gamier, Doctor of Medicine of the University of Montpellier,
wrote a Dissertation physique en forme de lettre, A M. de SA"ve,
seigneur de FlA(C)chA"res, on Jacques Aymar, printed the same year at
Lyons, and republished in the Histoire critique des pratiques
superstitieuses du PA"re Lebrun.

Doctor Chauvin was witness of nearly all the circumstances related, as
was also the AbbA(C) Lagarde, who has written a careful account of the
whole transaction as far as to the execution of the hunchback.

Another eye-witness writes to the AbbA(C) Bignon a letter printed by
Lebrun in his Histoire critique cited above. "The following
circumstance happened to me yesterday evening," he says: "M. le
Procureur du Roi here, who, by the way, is one of the wisest and
cleverest men in the country, sent for me at six o'clock, and had me
conducted to the scene of the murder. We found there M. Grimaut,
director of the customs, whom I knew to be a very upright man, and a
young attorney named Besson, with whom I am not acquainted, but who M.
le Procureur du Roi told me had the power of using the rod as well as
M. Grimaut. We descended into the cellar where the murder had been
committed, and where there were still traces of blood. Each time that
M. Grimaut and the attorney passed the spot where the murder had been
perpetrated, the rods they held in their hands began to turn, but
ceased when they stepped beyond the spot. We tried experiments for
more than an hour, as also with the bill, which M. le Procureur had
brought along with him, and they were satisfactory. I observed several
curious facts in the attorney. The rod in his hands was more violently
moved than in those of M. Grimaut, and when I placed one of my fingers
in each of his hands, whilst the rod turned, I felt the most
extraordinary throbbings of the arteries in his palms. His pulse was
at fever heat. He sweated profusely, and at intervals he was compelled
to go into the court to obtain fresh air."

The Sieur Pauthot, Dean of the College of Medicine at Lyons, gave his
observations to the public as well. Some of them are as follows: "We
began at the cellar in which the murder had been committed; into this
the man with the rod (Aymar) shrank from entering, because he felt
violent agitations which overcame him when he used the stick over the
place where the corpses of those who had been assassinated had lain.
On entering the cellar, the rod was put in my hands, and arranged by
the master as most suitable for operation; I passed and repassed over
the spot where the bodies had been found, but it remained immovable,
and I felt no agitation. A lady of rank and merit, who was with us,
took the rod after me; she felt it begin to move, and was internally
agitated. Then the owner of the rod resumed it, and, passing over the
same places, the stick rotated with such violence that it seemed
easier to break than to stop it. The peasant then quitted our company
to faint away, as was his wont after similar experiments. I followed
him. He turned very pale and broke into a profuse perspiration, whilst
for a quarter of an hour his pulse was violently troubled; indeed, the
faintness was so considerable, that they were obliged to dash water in
his face and give him water to drink in order to bring him round." He
then describes experiments made over the bloody bill and others
similar, which succeeded in the hands of Aymar and the lady, but
failed when he attempted them himself. Pierre Garnier, physician of
the medical college of Montpellier, appointed to that of Lyons, has
also written an account of what he saw, as mentioned above. He gives a
curious proof of Aymar's powers.

"M. le Lieutenant-GA(C)nA(C)ral having been robbed by one of his lackeys,
seven or eight months ago, and having lost by him twenty-five crowns
which had been taken out of one of the cabinets behind his library,
sent for Aymar, and asked him to discover the circumstances. Aymar
went several times round the chamber, rod in hand, placing one foot on
the chairs, on the various articles of furniture, and on two bureaux
which are in the apartment, each of which contains several drawers. He
fixed on the very bureau and the identical drawer out of which the
money had been stolen. M. le Lieutenant-GA(C)nA(C)ral bade him follow the
track of the robber. He did so. With his rod he went out on a new
terrace, upon which the cabinet opens, thence back into the cabinet
and up to the fire, then into the library, and from thence he went
direct up stairs to the lackeys' sleeping apartment, when the rod
guided him to one of the beds, and turned over one side of the bed,
remaining motionless over the other. The lackeys then present cried
out that the thief had slept on the side indicated by the rod, the bed
having been shared with another footman, who occupied the further
side." Garnier gives a lengthy account of various experiments he made
along with the Lieutenant-GA(C)nA(C)ral, the uncle of the same, the AbbA(C) de
St. Remain, and M. de Puget, to detect whether there was imposture in
the man. But all their attempts failed to discover a trace of
deception. He gives a report of a verbal examination of Aymar which is
interesting. The man always replied with candor.

The report of the extraordinary discovery of murder made by the
divining rod at Lyons attracted the attention of Paris, and Aymar was
ordered up to the capital. There, however, his powers left him. The
Prince de CondA(C) submitted him to various tests, and he broke down
under every one. Five holes were dug in the garden. In one was
secreted gold, in another silver, in a third silver and gold, in the
fourth copper, and in the fifth stones. The rod made no signs in
presence of the metals, and at last actually began to move over the
buried pebbles. He was sent to Chantilly to discover the perpetrators
of a theft of trout made in the ponds of the park. He went round the
water, rod in hand, and it turned at spots where he said the fish had
been drawn out. Then, following the track of the thief, it led him to
the cottage of one of the keepers, but did not move over any of the
individuals then in the house. The keeper himself was absent, but
arrived late at night, and, on hearing what was said, he roused Aymar
from his bed, insisting on having his innocence vindicated. The
divining rod, however, pronounced him guilty, and the poor fellow took
to his heels, much upon the principle recommended by Montesquieu a
while after. Said he, "If you are accused of having stolen the towers
of Notre-Dame, bolt at once."

A peasant, taken at haphazard from the street, was brought to the
sorcerer as one suspected. The rod turned slightly, and Aymar declared
that the man did not steal the fish, but ate of them. A boy was then
introduced, who was said to be the keeper's son. The rod rotated
violently at once. This was the finishing stroke, and Aymar was sent
away by the Prince in disgrace. It now transpired that the theft of
fish had taken place seven years before, and the lad was no relation
of the keeper, but a country boy who had only been in Chantilly eight
or ten months. M. Goyonnot, Recorder of the King's Council, broke a
window in his house, and sent for the diviner, to whom he related a
story of his having been robbed of valuables during the night. Aymar
indicated the broken window as the means whereby the thief had entered
the house, and pointed out the window by which he had left it with the
booty. As no such robbery had been committed, Aymar was turned out of
the house as an impostor. A few similar cases brought him into such
disrepute that he was obliged to leave Paris, and return to Grenoble.

Some years after, he was made use of by the MarA(C)chal Montrevel, in his
cruel pursuit of the Camisards.

Was Aymar an impostor from first to last, or did his powers fail him
in Paris? and was it only then that he had recourse to fraud?

Much may be said in favor of either supposition. His exposA(C) at Paris
tells heavily against him, but need not be regarded as conclusive
evidence of imposture throughout his career. If he really did possess
the powers he claimed, it is not to be supposed that these existed in
full vigor under all conditions; and Paris is a place most unsuitable
for testing them, built on artificial soil, and full of disturbing
influences of every description. It has been remarked with others who
used the rod, that their powers languished under excitement, and that
the faculties had to be in repose, the attention to be concentrated on
the subject of inquiry, or the action--nervous, magnetic, or
electrical, or what you will--was impeded.

Now, Paris, visited for the first time by a poor peasant, its
salons open to him, dazzling him with their splendor, and the
novelty of finding himself in the midst of princes, dukes, marquises,
and their families, not only may have agitated the countryman to such
an extent as to deprive him of his peculiar faculty, but may have led
him into simulating what he felt had departed from him, at the moment
when he was under the eyes of the grandees of the Court. We have
analogous cases in Bleton and Angelique Cottin. The former was a
hydroscope, who fell into convulsions whenever he passed over running
water. This peculiarity was noticed in him when a child of seven years
old. When brought to Paris, he failed signally to detect the presence
of water conveyed underground by pipes and conduits, but he pretended
to feel the influence of water where there certainly was none.
Angelique Cottin was a poor girl, highly charged with electricity. Any
one touching her received a violent shock; one medical gentleman,
having seated her on his knee, was knocked clean out of his chair by
the electric fluid, which thus exhibited its sense of propriety. But
the electric condition of Angelique became feebler as she approached
Paris, and failed her altogether in the capital.

I believe that the imagination is the principal motive force in those
who use the divining rod; but whether it is so solely, I am unable to
decide. The powers of nature are so mysterious and inscrutable that we
must be cautious in limiting them, under abnormal conditions, to the
ordinary laws of experience.

The manner in which the rod was used by certain persons renders
self-deception possible. The rod is generally of hazel, and is forked
like a Y; the forefingers are placed against the diverging arms of the
rod, and the elbows are brought back against the side; thus the
implement is held in front of the operator, delicately balanced before
the pit of the stomach at a distance of about eight inches. Now, if
the pressure of the balls of the digits be in the least relaxed, the
stalk of the rod will naturally fall. It has been assumed by some,
that a restoration of the pressure will bring the stem up again,
pointing towards the operator, and a little further pressure will
elevate it into a perpendicular position. A relaxation of force will
again lower it, and thus the rotation observed in the rod be
maintained. I confess myself unable to accomplish this. The lowering
of the leg of the rod is easy enough, but no efforts of mine to
produce a revolution on its axis have as yet succeeded. The muscles
which would contract the fingers upon the arms of the stick, pass the
shoulder; and it is worthy of remark that one of the medical men who
witnessed the experiments made on Bleton the hydroscope, expressly
alludes to a slight rising of the shoulders during the rotation of the
divining rod.

But the manner of using the rod was by no means identical in all
cases. If, in all cases, it had simply been balanced between the
fingers, some probability might be given to the suggestion above made,
that the rotation was always effected by the involuntary action of the

The usual manner of holding the rod, however, precluded such a
possibility. The most ordinary use consisted in taking a forked stick
in such a manner that the palms were turned upwards, and the fingers
closed upon the branching arms of the rod. Some required the normal
position of the rod to be horizontal, others elevated the point,
others again depressed it.

If the implement were straight, it was held in a similar manner, but
the hands were brought somewhat together, so as to produce a slight
arc in the rod. Some who practised rhabdomancy sustained this species
of rod between their thumbs and forefingers; or else the thumb and
forefingers were closed, and the rod rested on their points; or again
it reposed on the flat of the hand, or on the back, the hand being
held vertically and the rod held in equilibrium.

A third species of divining rod consisted in a straight staff cut in
two: one extremity of the one half was hollowed out, the other half
was sharpened at the end, and this end was inserted in the hollow, and
the pointed stick rotated in the cavity.

From "Lettres qui dA(C)couvrent l'Illusion des Philosophes sur la
Baguette." Paris, 1693.]

The way in which Bleton used his rod is thus minutely described: "He
does not grasp it, nor warm it in his hands, and he does not regard
with preference a hazel branch lately cut and full of sap. He
places horizontally between his forefingers a rod of any kind given to
him, or picked up in the road, of any sort of wood except elder, fresh
or dry, not always forked, but sometimes merely bent. If it is
straight, it rises slightly at the extremities by little jerks, but
does not turn. If bent, it revolves on its axis with more or less
rapidity, in more or less time, according to the quantity and current
of the water. I counted from thirty to thirty-five revolutions in a
minute, and afterwards as many as eighty. A curious phenomenon is,
that Bleton is able to make the rod turn between another person's
fingers, even without seeing it or touching it, by approaching his
body towards it when his feet stand over a subterranean watercourse.
It is true, however, that the motion is much less strong and less
durable in other fingers than his own. If Bleton stood on his head,
and placed the rod between his feet, though he felt strongly the
peculiar sensations produced in him by flowing water, yet the rod
remained stationary. If he were insulated on glass, silk, or wax, the
sensations were less vivid, and the rotation of the stick ceased."

But this experiment failed in Paris, under circumstances which either
proved that Bleton's imagination produced the movement, or that his
integrity was questionable. It is quite possible that in many
instances the action of the muscles is purely involuntary, and is
attributable to the imagination, so that the operator deceives himself
as well as others.

This is probably the explanation of the story of Mdlle. Olivet, a
young lady of tender conscience, who was a skilful performer with the
divining rod, but shrank from putting her powers in operation, lest
she should be indulging in unlawful acts. She consulted the PA"re
Lebrun, author of a work already referred to in this paper, and he
advised her to ask God to withdraw the power from her, if the exercise
of it was harmful to her spiritual condition. She entered into retreat
for two days, and prayed with fervor. Then she made her communion,
asking God what had been recommended to her at the moment when she
received the Host. In the afternoon of the same day she made
experiment with her rod, and found that it would no longer operate.
The girl had strong faith in it before--a faith coupled with fear; and
as long as that faith was strong in her, the rod moved; now she
believed that the faculty was taken from her; and the power ceased
with the loss of her faith.

If the divining rod is put in motion by any other force except the
involuntary action of the muscles, we must confine its powers to the
property of indicating the presence of flowing water. There are
numerous instances of hydroscopes thus detecting the existence of a
spring, or of a subterranean watercourse; the most remarkably endowed
individuals of this description are Jean-Jacques Parangue, born near
Marseilles, in 1760, who experienced a horror when near water which no
one else perceived. He was endowed with the faculty of seeing water
through the ground, says l'AbbA(C) Sauri, who gives his history. Jenny
Leslie, a Scotch girl, about the same date claimed similar powers. In
1790, Pennet, a native of DauphinA(C), attracted attention in Italy, but
when carefully tested by scientific men in Padua, his attempts to
discover buried metals failed; at Florence he was detected in an
endeavor to find out by night what had been secreted to test his
powers on the morrow. Vincent Amoretti was an Italian, who underwent
peculiar sensations when brought in proximity to water, coal, and
salt; he was skilful in the use of the rod, but made no public
exhibition of his powers.

The rod is still employed, I have heard it asserted, by Cornish
miners; but I have never been able to ascertain that such is really
the case. The mining captains whom I have questioned invariably
repudiated all knowledge of its use.

In Wiltshire, however, it is still employed for the purpose of
detecting water; and the following extract from a letter I have just
received will show that it is still in vogue on the Continent:--

"I believe the use of the divining rod for discovering springs of
water has by no means been confined to mediAval times; for I was
personally acquainted with a lady, now deceased, who has successfully
practised with it in this way. She was a very clever and accomplished
woman; Scotch by birth and education; by no means credulous; possibly
a little imaginative, for she wrote not unsuccessfully; and of a
remarkably open and straightforward disposition. Captain C----, her
husband, had a large estate in Holstein, near Lubeck, supporting a
considerable population; and whether for the wants of the people or
for the improvement of the land, it now and then happened that an
additional well was needed.

"On one of these occasions a man was sent for who made a regular
profession of finding water by the divining rod; there happened to be
a large party staying at the house, and the whole company turned out
to see the fun. The rod gave indications in the usual way, and water
was ultimately found at the spot. Mrs. C----, utterly sceptical, took
the rod into her own hands to make experiment, believing that she
would prove the man an impostor; and she said afterwards she was never
more frightened in her life than when it began to move, on her walking
over the spring. Several other gentlemen and ladies tried it, but it
was quite inactive in their hands. 'Well,' said the host to his wife,
'we shall have no occasion to send for the man again, as you are such
an adept.'

"Some months after this, water was wanted in another part of the
estate, and it occurred to Mrs. C---- that she would use the rod
again. After some trials, it again gave decided indications, and a
well was begun and carried down a very considerable depth. At last she
began to shrink from incurring more expense, but the laborers had
implicit faith; and begged to be allowed to persevere. Very soon the
water burst up with such force that the men escaped with difficulty;
and this proved afterwards the most unfailing spring for miles round.

"You will take the above for what it is worth; the facts I have given
are undoubtedly true, whatever conclusions may be drawn from them. I
do not propose that you should print my narrative, but I think in
these cases personal testimony, even indirect, is more useful in
forming one's opinion than a hundred old volumes. I did not hear it
from Mrs. C----'s own lips, but I was sufficiently acquainted with her
to form a very tolerable estimate of her character; and my wife, who
has known her intimately from her own childhood, was in her younger
days often staying with her for months together."

I remember having been much perplexed by reading a series of
experiments made with a pendulous ring over metals, by a Mr. Mayo: he
ascertained that it oscillated in various directions under peculiar
circumstances, when suspended by a thread over the ball of the thumb.
I instituted a series of experiments, and was surprised to find the
ring vibrate in an unaccountable manner in opposite directions over
different metals. On consideration, I closed my eyes whilst the ring
was oscillating over gold, and on opening them I found that it had
become stationary. I got a friend to change the metals whilst I was
blindfolded--the ring no longer vibrated. I was thus enabled to judge
of the involuntary action of muscles, quite sufficient to have
deceived an eminent medical man like Mr. Mayo, and to have perplexed
me till I succeeded in solving the mystery.[24]


[23] Hos. iv. 12.

[24] A similar series of experiments was undertaken, as I learned
afterwards, by M. Chevreuil in Paris, with similar results.

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