Custom and Myth, by Andrew Lang

The Divining Rod.

There is something remarkable, and not flattering to human sagacity, in the periodical resurrection of superstitions. Houses, for example, go on being ‘haunted’ in country districts, and no educated man notices the circumstance. Then comes a case like that of the Drummer of Tedworth, or the Cock Lane Ghost, and society is deeply moved, philosophers plunge into controversy, and he who grubs among the dusty tracts of the past finds a world of fugitive literature on forgotten bogies. Chairs move untouched by human hands, and tables walk about in lonely castles of Savoy, and no one marks them, till a day comes when the furniture of some American cottage is similarly afflicted, and then a shoddy new religion is based on the phenomenon. The latest revival among old beliefs is faith in the divining rod. ‘Our liberal shepherds give it a shorter name,’ and so do our conservative peasants, calling the ‘rod of Jacob’ the ‘twig.’ To ‘work the twig’ is rural English for the craft of Dousterswivel in the Antiquary, and perhaps from this comes our slang expression to ‘twig,’ or divine, the hidden meaning of another. Recent correspondence in the newspapers has proved that, whatever may be the truth about the ‘twig,’ belief in its powers is still very prevalent. Respectable people are not ashamed to bear signed witness to its miraculous powers of detecting springs of water and secret mines. It is habitually used by the miners in the Mendips, as Mr. Woodward found ten years ago; and forked hazel divining rods from the Mendips are a recognised part of ethnological collections. There are two ways of investigating the facts or fancies about the rod. One is to examine it in its actual operation — a task of considerable labour, which will doubtless be undertaken by the Society for Psychical Research; the other, and easier, way is to study the appearances of the divining wand in history, and that is what we propose to do in this article.

When a superstition or belief is widely spread in Europe, as the faith in the divining rod certainly is (in Germany rods are hidden under babies’ clothes when they are baptised), we naturally expect to find traces of it in ancient times and among savages all over the modern world. We have already examined in ‘The Bull-Roarer’ a very similar example. We saw that there is a magical instrument — a small fish-shaped piece of thin flat wood tied to a thong — which, when whirled in the air, produces a strange noise, a compound of roar and buzz. This instrument is sacred among the natives of Australia, where it is used to call together the men, and to frighten away the women from the religious mysteries of the males. The same instrument is employed for similar purposes in New Mexico, and in South Africa and New Zealand — parts of the world very widely distant from each other, and inhabited by very diverse races. It has also been lately discovered that the Greeks used this toy, which they called ῥόμβος, in the Mysteries of Dionysus, and possibly it may be identical with the mystica vannus Iacchi (Virgil, Georgics, i. 166). The conclusion drawn by the ethnologist is that this object, called turndun by the Australians, is a very early savage invention, probably discovered and applied to religious purposes in various separate centres, and retained from the age of savagery in the mystic rites of Greeks and perhaps of Romans. Well, do we find anything analogous in the case of the divining rod?

Future researches may increase our knowledge, but at present little or nothing is known of the divining rod in classical ages, and not very much (though that little is significant) among uncivilised races. It is true that in all countries rods or wands, the Latin virga, have a magical power. Virgil obtained his mediæval repute as a wizard because his name was erroneously connected with virgula, the magic wand. But we do not actually know that the ancient wand of the enchantress Circe, in Homer, or the wand of Hermes, was used, like the divining rod, to indicate the whereabouts of hidden wealth or water. In the Homeric hymn to Hermes (line 529), Apollo thus describes the caduceus, or wand of Hermes: ‘Thereafter will I give thee a lovely wand of wealth and riches, a golden wand with three leaves, which shall keep thee ever unharmed.’ In later art this wand, or caduceus, is usually entwined with serpents; but on one vase, at least, the wand of Hermes is simply the forked twig of our rustic miners and water-finders. The same form is found on an engraved Etruscan mirror.182

Now, was a wand of this form used in classical times to discover hidden objects of value? That wands were used by Scythians and Germans in various methods of casting lots is certain; but that is not the same thing as the working of the twig. Cicero speaks of a fabled wand by which wealth can be procured; but he says nothing of the method of its use, and possibly was only thinking of the rod of Hermes, as described in the Homeric hymn already quoted. There was a Roman satura, by Varro, called ‘Virgula Divina’; fragments remain, but throw no light on the subject. A passage usually quoted from Seneca has no more to do with the divining rod than with the telephone. Pliny is a writer extremely fond of marvels; yet when he describes the various modes of finding wells of water, he says nothing about the divining wand. The isolated texts from Scripture which are usually referred to clearly indicate wands of a different sort, if we except Hosea iv. 12, the passage used as motto by the author of Lettres qui découvrent l’illusion des Philosophes sur la Baguette (1696). This text is translated in our Bible, ‘My people ask counsel at their stocks, and their staff declareth unto them.’ Now, we have here no reference to the search for wells and minerals, but to a form of divination for which the modern twig has ceased to be applied. In rural England people use the wand to find water, but not to give advice, or to detect thieves or murderers; but, as we shall see, the rod has been very much used for these purposes within the last three centuries.

This brings us to the moral powers of the twig; and here we find some assistance in our inquiry from the practices of uncivilised races. In 1719 John Bell was travelling across Asia; he fell in with a Russian merchant, who told him of a custom common among the Mongols. The Russian had lost certain pieces of cloth, which were stolen out of his tent. The Kutuchtu Lama ordered the proper steps to be taken to find out the thief. ‘One of the Lamas took a bench with four feet, and after turning it in several directions, at last it pointed directly to the tent where the stolen goods were concealed. The Lama now mounted across the bench, and soon carried it, or, as was commonly believed, it carried him, to the very tent, where he ordered the damask to be produced. The demand was directly complied with; for it is vain in such cases to offer any excuse.’183 Here we have not a wand, indeed, but a wooden object which turned in the direction, not of water or minerals, but of human guilt. A better instance is given by the Rev. H. Rowley, in his account of the Mauganja.184 A thief had stolen some corn. The medicine-man, or sorcerer, produced two sticks, which he gave to four young men, two holding each stick. The medicine-man danced and sang a magical incantation, while a zebra-tail and a rattle were shaken over the holders of the sticks. ‘After a while, the men with the sticks had spasmodic twitchings of the arms and legs; these increased nearly to convulsions. . . . According to the native idea, it was the sticks which were possessed primarily, and through them the men, who could hardly hold them. The sticks whirled and dragged the men round and round like mad, through bush and thorny shrub, and over every obstacle; nothing stopped them; their bodies were torn and bleeding. At last they came back to the assembly, whirled round again, and rushed down the path to fall panting and exhausted in the hut of one of a chief’s wives. The sticks, rolling to her very feet, denounced her as a thief. She denied it; but the medicine-man answered, “The spirit has declared her guilty; the spirit never lies.”’ The woman, however, was acquitted, after a proxy trial by ordeal: a cock, used as her proxy, threw up the muavi, or ordeal-poison.

Here the points to be noted are, first, the violent movement of the sticks, which the men could hardly hold; next, the physical agitation of the men. The former point is illustrated by the confession of a civil engineer writing in the Times. This gentleman had seen the rod successfully used for water; he was asked to try it himself, and he determined that it should not twist in his hands ‘if an ocean rolled under his feet.’ Twist it did, however, in spite of all his efforts to hold it, when he came above a concealed spring. Another example is quoted in the Quarterly Review, vol. xxii. p. 374. A narrator, in whom the editor ‘had implicit confidence,’ mentions how, when a lady held the twig just over a hidden well, ‘the twig turned so quick as to snap, breaking near her fingers.’ There seems to be no indiscretion in saying, as the statement has often been printed before, that the lady spoken of in the Quarterly Review was Lady Milbanke, mother of the wife of Byron. Dr. Hutton, the geologist, is quoted as a witness of her success in the search for water with the divining rod. He says that, in an experiment at Woolwich, ‘the twigs twisted themselves off below her fingers which were considerably indented by so forcibly holding the rods between them.’185 Next, the violent excitement of the four young men of the Mauganja is paralleled by the physical experience of the lady quoted in the Quarterly Review. ‘A degree of agitation was visible in her face when she first made the experiment; she says this agitation was great’ when she began to practise the art, or whatever we are to call it. Again, in Lettres qui découvrent l’illusion (p. 93), we read that Jacques Aymar (who discovered the Lyons murderer in 1692) se sent tout ému— feels greatly agitated — when he comes on that of which he is in search. On page 97 of the same volume, the body of the man who holds the divining rod is described as ‘violently agitated.’ When Aymar entered the room where the murder, to be described later, was committed, ‘his pulse rose as if he were in a burning fever, and the wand turned rapidly in his hands’ (Lettres, p. 107). But the most singular parallel to the performance of the African wizard must be quoted from a curious pamphlet already referred to, a translation of the old French Verge de Jacob, written, annotated, and published by a Mr. Thomas Welton. Mr. Welton seems to have been a believer in mesmerism, animal magnetism, and similar doctrines, but the coincidence of his story with that of the African sorcerer is none the less remarkable. It is a coincidence which must almost certainly be ‘undesigned.’ Mr. Welton’s wife was what modern occult philosophers call a ‘Sensitive.’ In 1851, he wished her to try an experiment with the rod in a garden, and sent a maid-servant to bring ‘a certain stick that stood behind the parlour door. In great terror she brought it to the garden, her hand firmly clutched on the stick, nor could she let it go. . . . ’ The stick was given to Mrs. Welton, ‘and it drew her with very considerable force to nearly the centre of the garden, to a bed of poppies, where she stopped.’ Here water was found, and the gardener, who had given up his lease as there was no well in the garden, had the lease renewed.

We began by giving evidence to show (and much more might be adduced) that the belief in the divining rod, or in analogous instruments, is not confined to the European races. The superstition, or whatever we are to call it, produces the same effects of physical agitation, and the use of the rod is accompanied with similar phenomena among Mongols, English people, Frenchmen, and the natives of Central Africa. The same coincidences are found in almost all superstitious practices, and in the effects of these practices on believers. The Chinese use a form of planchette, which is half a divining rod — a branch of the peach tree; and ‘spiritualism’ is more than three-quarters of the religion of most savage tribes, a Maori séance being more impressive than anything the civilised Sludge can offer his credulous patrons. From these facts different people draw different inferences. Believers say that the wide distribution of their favourite mysteries is a proof that ‘there is something in them.’ The incredulous look on our modern ‘twigs’ and turning-tables and ghost stories as mere ‘survivals’ from the stage of savage culture, or want of culture, when the fancy of half-starved man was active and his reason uncritical.

The great authority for the modern history of the divining rod is a work published by M. Chevreuil, in Paris, in 1854. M. Chevreuil, probably with truth, regarded the wand as much on a par with the turning-tables, which, in 1854, attracted a good deal of attention. He studied the topic historically, and his book, with a few accessible French tracts and letters of the seventeenth century, must here be our guide. A good deal of M. Chevreuil’s learning, it should be said, is reproduced in Mr. Baring Gould’s Curious Myths of the Middle Ages, but the French author is much more exhaustive in his treatment of the topic. M. Chevreuil could find no earlier book on the twig than the Testament du Frère Basil Valentin, a holy man who flourished (the twig) about 1413; but whose treatise is possibly apocryphal. According to Basil Valentin, the twig was regarded with awe by ignorant labouring men, which is still true. Paracelsus, though he has a reputation for magical daring, thought the use of the twig ‘uncertain and unlawful’; and Agricola, in his De Re Metallica (1546), expresses a good deal of scepticism about the use of the rod in mining. A traveller of 1554 found that the wand was not used — and this seems to have surprised him — in the mines of Macedonia. Most of the writers of the sixteenth century accounted for the turning of the rod by ‘sympathy,’ which was then as favourite an explanation of everything as evolution is to-day. In 1630 the Baron de Beau Soleil of Bohemia (his name sounds rather Bohemian) came to France with his wife, and made much use of the rod in the search for water and minerals. The Baroness wrote a little volume on the subject, afterwards reprinted in a great storehouse of this lore, La Physique Occulte, of Vallemont. Kircher, a Jesuit, made experiments which came to nothing; but Gaspard Schott, a learned writer, cautiously declined to say that the Devil was always ‘at the bottom of it’ when the rod turned successfully. The problem of the rod was placed before our own Royal Society by Boyle, in 1666, but the Society was not more successful here than in dealing with the philosophical difficulty proposed by Charles II. In 1679 De Saint Romain, deserting the old hypothesis of secret ‘sympathies,’ explained the motion of the rod (supposing it to move) by the action of corpuscules. From this time the question became the playing ground of the Cartesian and other philosophers. The struggle was between theories of ‘atoms,’ magnetism, ‘corpuscules,’ electric effluvia, and so forth, on one side, and the immediate action of devils or of conscious imposture, on the other. The controversy, comparatively simple as long as the rod only indicated hidden water or minerals, was complicated by the revival of the savage belief that the wand could ‘smell out’ moral offences. As long as the twig turned over material objects, you could imagine sympathies and ‘effluvia’ at pleasure. But when the wand twirled over the scene of a murder, or dragged the expert after the traces of the culprit, fresh explanations were wanted. Le Brun wrote to Malebranche on July 8, 1689, to tell him that the wand only turned over what the holder had the intention of discovering.186 If he were following a murderer, the wand good-naturedly refused to distract him by turning over hidden water. On the other hand, Vallemont says that when a peasant was using the wand to find water, it turned over a spot in a wood where a murdered woman was buried, and it conducted the peasant to the murderer’s house. These events seem inconsistent with Le Brun’s theory of intention. Malebranche replied, in effect, that he had only heard of the turning of the wand over water and minerals; that it then turned (if turn it did) by virtue of some such force as electricity; that, if such force existed, the wand would turn over open water. But it does not so turn; and, as physical causes are constant, it follows that the turning of the rod cannot be the result of a physical cause. The only other explanation is an intelligent cause — either the will of an impostor, or the action of a spirit. Good spirits would not meddle with such matters; therefore either the Devil or an impostor causes the motion of the rod, if it does move at all. This logic of Malebranche’s is not agreeable to believers in the twig; but there the controversy stood, till, in 1692, Jacques Aymar, a peasant of Dauphiné, by the use of the twig discovered one of the Lyons murderers.

Though the story of this singular event is pretty well known, it must here be briefly repeated. No affair can be better authenticated, and our version is abridged from the ‘Relations’ of ‘Monsieur le Procureur du Roi, Monsieur l’Abbé de la Garde, Monsieur Panthot, Doyen des Médecins de Lyon, et Monsieur Aubert, Avocat célèbre.’

On July 5, 1692, a vintner and his wife were found dead in the cellar of their shop at Lyons. They had been killed by blows from a hedging-knife, and their money had been stolen. The culprits could not be discovered, and a neighbour took upon him to bring to Lyons a peasant out of Dauphiné, named Jacques Aymar, a man noted for his skill with the divining rod. The Lieutenant-Criminel and the Procureur du Roi took Aymar into the cellar, furnishing him with a rod of the first wood that came to hand. According to the Procureur du Roi, the rod did not move till Aymar reached the very spot where the crime had been committed. His pulse then rose, and the wand twisted rapidly. ‘Guided by the wand or by some internal sensation,’ Aymar now pursued the track of the assassins, entered the court of the Archbishop’s palace, left the town by the bridge over the Rhone, and followed the right bank of the river. He reached a gardener’s house, which he declared the men had entered, and some children confessed that three men (whom they described) had come into the house one Sunday morning. Aymar followed the track up the river, pointed out all the places where the men had landed, and, to make a long story short, stopped at last at the door of the prison of Beaucaire. He was admitted, looked at the prisoners, and picked out as the murderer a little hunchback (had the children described a hunchback?) who had just been brought in for a small theft. The hunchback was taken to Lyons, and he was recognised, on the way, by the people at all the stages where he had stopped. At Lyons he was examined in the usual manner, and confessed that he had been an accomplice in the crime, and had guarded the door. Aymar pursued the other culprits to the coast, followed them by sea, landed where they had landed, and only desisted from his search when they crossed the frontier. As for the hunchback, he was broken on the wheel, being condemned on his own confession. It does not appear that he was put to the torture to make him confess. If this had been done his admissions would, of course, have been as valueless as those of the victims in trials for witchcraft.

This is, in brief, the history of the famous Lyons murders. It must be added that many experiments were made with Aymar in Paris, and that they were all failures. He fell into every trap that was set for him; detected thieves who were innocent, failed to detect the guilty, and invented absurd excuses; alleging, for example, that the rod would not indicate a murderer who had confessed, or who was drunk when he committed his crime. These excuses seem to annihilate the wild contemporary theory of Chauvin and others, that the body of a murderer naturally exhales an invisible matière meurtrière— peculiar indestructible atoms, which may be detected by the expert with the rod. Something like the same theory, we believe, has been used to explain the pretended phenomena of haunted houses. But the wildest philosophical credulity is staggered by a matière meurtrière which is disengaged by the body of a sober, but not by that of an intoxicated, murderer, which survives tempests in the air, and endures for many years, but is dissipated the moment the murderer confesses. Believers in Aymar have conjectured that his real powers were destroyed by the excitements of Paris, and that he took to imposture; but this is an effort of too easy good-nature. When Vallemont defended Aymar (1693) in the book called La Physique Occulte, he declared that Aymar was physically affected to an unpleasant extent by matière meurtrière, but was not thus agitated when he used the rod to discover minerals. We have seen that, if modern evidence can be trusted, holders of the rod are occasionally much agitated even when they are only in search of wells. The story gave rise to a prolonged controversy, and the case remains a judicial puzzle, but little elucidated by the confession of the hunchback, who may have been insane, or morbid, or vexed by constant questioning till he was weary of his life. He was only nineteen years of age.

The next use of the rod was very much like that of ‘tipping’ and turning tables. Experts held it (as did Le Père Ménestrier, 1694), questions were asked, and the wand answered by turning in various directions. By way of showing the inconsistency of all philosophies of the wand, it may be said that one girl found that it turned over concealed gold if she held gold in her hand, while another found that it indicated the metal so long as she did not carry gold with her in the quest. In the search for water, ecclesiastics were particularly fond of using the rod. The Maréchal de Boufflers dug many wells, and found no water, on the indications of a rod in the hands of the Prieur de Dorenic, near Guise. In 1700 a curé, near Toulouse, used the wand to answer questions, which, like planchette, it often answered wrong. The great sourcier, or water-finder, of the eighteenth century was one Bleton. He declared that the rod was a mere index, and that physical sensations of the searcher communicated themselves to the wand. This is the reverse of the African theory, that the stick is inspired, while the men who hold it are only influenced by the stick. On the whole, Bleton’s idea seems the less absurd, but Bleton himself often failed when watched with scientific care by the incredulous. Paramelle, who wrote on methods of discovering wells, in 1856, came to the conclusion that the wand turns in the hands of certain individuals of peculiar temperament, and that it is very much a matter of chance whether there are, or are not, wells in the places where it turns.

On the whole, the evidence for the turning of the wand is a shade better than that for the magical turning of tables. If there are no phenomena of this sort at all, it is remarkable that the belief in them is so widely diffused. But if the phenomena are purely subjective, owing to the conscious or unconscious action of nervous patients, then they are precisely of the sort which the cunning medicine-man observes, and makes his profit out of, even in the earliest stages of society. Once introduced, these practices never die out among the conservative and unprogressive class of peasants; and, every now and then, they attract the curiosity of philosophers, or win the belief of the credulous among the educated classes. Then comes, as we have lately seen, a revival of ancient superstition. For it were as easy to pluck the comet out of the sky by the tail, as to eradicate superstition from the mind of man.

Perhaps one good word may be said for the divining rod. Considering the chances it has enjoyed, the rod has done less mischief than might have been expected. It might very well have become, in Europe, as in Asia and Africa, a kind of ordeal, or method of searching for and trying malefactors. Men like Jacques Aymar might have played, on a larger scale, the part of Hopkins, the witch-finder. Aymar was, indeed, employed by some young men to point out, by help of the wand, the houses of ladies who had been more frail than faithful. But at the end of the seventeenth century in France, this research was not regarded with favour, and put the final touch on the discomfiture of Aymar. So far as we know, the hunchback of Lyons was the only victim of the ‘twig’ who ever suffered in civilised society. It is true that, in rural England, the movements of a Bible, suspended like a pendulum, have been thought to point out the guilty. But even that evidence is not held good enough to go to a jury.

182 Preller, Ausgewählte Aufsätze, p. 154.

183 Tylor, Prim. Cult., ii. 156. Pinkerton, vii. 357.

184 Universities Mission to Central Africa, p. 217. Prim. Cult., ii. 156, 157.

185 Quoted in Jacob’s Rod: London, n.d., a translation of La Verge de Jacob, Lyon, 1693.

186 Lettres sur la Baguette, pp. 106-112.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 22:03