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Occult Science & Philosophy in the Renaissance

The Sixth Sense

Pierre Le Lorrain, Abbé de Vallemont. La Physique Occulte, ou Traité de la Baguette Divinatoire. Amsterdam: Adrian Braakman, 1693.
Rare BF1628 .V2 1693 Mini

Dowsing, sometimes called divining or water witching, is the art of finding underground water, metals, or gems by the use of a forked twig or metal rod called a divining rod. The forks of the rod are carried in the dowser’s hands. As he or she nears the materials being searched for—so it is claimed—the rod will start to move of its own accord. Explanations of this phenomenon vary. One suggestion is that the rod’s reaction is triggered not by water or metal, but by a “sixth sense” in dowsers themselves, which causes the muscles in their hands to react. The dowsing rod, according to this explanation, is simply a conduit for the dowsers’ subconscious knowledge or perception.

Though the practice of dowsing dates back to ancient times, modern dowsing techniques were developed in the Renaissance. At that time, many associated dowsing with the occult. Martin Luther even considered it a violation of the first commandment (“I am the Lord your God… You shall have no gods other than me.”) Nevertheless, dowsing flourished in Germany and England in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. In France, its heyday came in the seventeenth century. There, the Baron and Baroness de Beausoleil used dowsing to establish a thriving mineral company. Their luck ran out, however, when they were accused of having made a pact with the devil. At Cardinal Richelieu’s orders they were charged with sorcery and imprisoned for the rest of their lives.

By the time the book displayed here, a treatise on the history and use of the divining rod, was published, witchcraft had come to be regarded more as a quaint relic of the past than as a real threat. The book’s author, the Abbé de Vallemont, was a professor of physics at the University of Paris. After examining dowsing’s usefulness for finding buried mineral resources, Vallemont makes the intriguing claim that divining rods can also be used to locate fugitive criminals. As proof of this, he tells an anecdote about how a dowser helped police in the French city of Lyons find the murderers of a wine merchant and his wife who were axed to death in their cellar.

Juan Eusebio Nieremberg. Curiosa y Oculta Filosofia. Alcala: Maria Fernandez, 1649.
Rhoades AES9671

Born in Spain of German parents, the Jesuit writer and natural philosopher Juan Eusebio Nieremberg (1595-1658) was one of the most well known writers on mysticism during the golden age of Spanish literature. In addition to a work on natural history in which he proposed that the abundance of snakes in the Americas was a sign of Satan’s dominance over the New World, he also wrote the book displayed here—Curious and Hidden Philosophy.

Nieremberg expounds on the mystical significance of various natural phenomena, including stars, comets, and volcanoes. In one of his chapters on monsters, he tells the story of a fabled race of red-eyed people believed to have lived in the mountains of northern Spain. The Zahuris, as these people were called, supposedly had supernatural powers that enabled them, like dowsers, to see streams of water and veins of metal hidden in the earth. They could also detect the whereabouts of buried treasure and the bodies of murdered persons.

“Explanations were offered on natural lines,” one historian has written. “It was said that these men knew where water was to be found by the vapors arising at such spots, and that they were able to trace mines of gold, silver, and copper by the particular herbs growing in their neighborhood. But to the Spaniards, such explanations were unsatisfactory; they persisted in believing that the Zahuris were gifted with supernatural faculties, that they were in rapport with demons, and that, if they wished, they could, without any physical aid, read thoughts and discover secrets that were as a sealed book to the grosser senses of ordinary mortals.”

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