Water witching (rhabdomancy) is very common in West Virginia. According to a study done about fifty years ago, at that time there were twenty-five thousand practicing water witches in this country. The actual practice of divining with a forked stick, as we know it, began in the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century in Germany.
Martin Luther believed the practice violated the first commandment. Through the ages it has been roundly denounced as the devil’s work and praised as a remarkable aid to a basic necessity of rural life—finding water. It is often categorized with such rural customs as planting by the signs.
There must be scientific reasons why some people have special powers to locate water through divining. We just have not determined what those scientific reasons are—or perhaps I am enough of a romantic to allow for belief in its efficacy. I agree with a quotation that sums up the situation: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
I once blindfolded a water witch so there was no possibility he could see. I set a large bucket of water within a 360-degree circle around him, turned him around until he was so dizzy I had to support him until he got his balance back, and then let him turn in a circle to locate the water. He found the water every time, and I conducted this test about half a dozen times.
In fact, when his divining rod got directly over the water, his arms would shake violently. When I tried to do this myself, I actually found the water the first time, but it was more guessing than feeling a specific draw on the rod, although I thought I felt something.
Another test I tried was to have a local Randolph County water witch find a course of water in an open field. At that exact spot, I clamped his rod to a supporting stand, where, without him touching the rod, it did not move on its own. I then had him walk close and reach out with one hand and touch the rod. It still did nothing. He then grasped the rod with two hands as I unclamped it from the stand. It dipped down again, indicating the watercourse.
Vogt and Golde reported one test with a water witch who had a brother without the power. He walked behind the powerless brother and held onto his ears. In doing so, the divining rod worked like normal in his brother’s hands.
After knowing and working with this local Randolph County witch for awhile, I became comfortable enough with him to ask a personal question. This man did not cut his fingernails, and some, including one thumbnail, were about two inches in length, growing out in a long curve.
Some things seem best not questioned at first, but I was dying to know about this. At last, one evening when I was passing near his home and stopped by to say hello, I decided the time was right. At a pause in our conversation, I said, “Burt, I’ve been curious as to why you have such long fingernails.” I then paused anxiously, waiting for an answer to my question, thinking that perhaps it related to some unknown occult methodology involving secretive aspects of divining. Barely looking up, Burt said, “To scratch my ass.” It seems things don’t always appear to be what you think they are.
source: Signs, cures, & witchery: German Appalachian folklore, by Gerald Milnes, Univ of Tennessee Press, 2007