Divination by water, said by Natalis Comes (d. 1582) to have
been the invention of Nereus, ancient god of the sea. However,
the term covers various methods of divination, ranging from
forms of crystal gazing (using a large or small pool of water)
to what is now known as radiesthesiausing as a pendulum a
wedding ring suspended on a thread and held over a glass of
Hydromancy is, in principal, the same thing as divination by
the crystal or mirror, and in ancient times a natural basin of
rock kept constantly full by a running stream was a favorite medium.
The Jesuit scholar M. A. Del Rio (15511608) described one
example of hydromancy in which the sucessor of Emperor Andronicus
Comnenus was revealed.
The letters S.I. showed upon the water and the prediction
was verified, for, within the time named, Isaac Angelus had
thrown Andronicus to be torn to pieces by the infuriated populace
of Constantinople. Since the devil spells backward, S.I.,
when inverted, would fairly enough represent Isaac, according
to all laws of magic.
Del Rio cited several kinds of hydromancy. In one, a ring
was suspended by a thread in a vessel of water. When the vessel
was shaken, a judgment was formed according to the strokes of
the ring against its sides.
In a second method, three pebbles were thrown into standing
water and observations were drawn from the circles they
formed. A third method depended upon the agitations of the
A fourth divination was taken from the color of water and
certain figures appearing in it. There arose a method of divination
by fountains, since these were the waters most frequently
consulted. Among the most celebrated fountains for this purpose
were those of Palicorus in Sicily, which invariably destroyed
the criminal who ventured to adjure them falsely in testimony
of his innocence. A full account of their use and virtue
is given by the Roman philosopher Macrobius (ca. 345423
Pausanias (second century C.E.) described a fountain near
Epidaurus, dedicated to Ino. On her festival certain loaves were
thrown into the fountain. It was a favorable omen to the applicant
if these offerings were retained; unlucky if they were
washed up again. So, also, Tiberius cast golden dice into the
fountain of Apomus, near Padua, where they long remained as
a proof of the imperial monsters good fortune in making the
Several other instances of divining springs were collected by
the antiquary J. J. Boissard (15281602), and Del Rio ascribed
to them the origin of a custom of the ancient Germans, who
threw their newborn children into the Rhine, with a conviction
that if they were spurious they would sink, if legitimate they
would swim. This custom also sounds like a precursor of the
seventeenth-century custom of swimming witches, perhaps
related to the Anglo-Saxon law, created by King Athelstan, of
trial by water.
In a fifth method of hydromancy, certain mysterious words
were pronounced over a cupful of water and observations were
made upon its spontaneously bubbling. In a sixth method, a
drop of oil on water in a glass vessel furnished a kind of mirror
upon which many wonderful objects were said to become visible.
Clemens Alexandrinus mentioned a seventh kind of hydromancy
in which the women of Germany watched the sources,
whirls, and courses of rivers with a view to prophetic interpretation.
In modern Italy, acording to Del Rio, diviners were still to
be found who wrote the names of any three persons suspected
of theft upon a like number of little balls, which they threw into
the water to determine the guilty party.
E. W. Lane, in his work An Account of the Manners and Customs
of the Modern Egyptians (1836), testifies to the success of divination
by a pool of water as practiced in Egypt and Hindustan.
Lane witnessed the performance of this type of sorcery. The
magician began by writing forms of invocation to his familiar
spirits on six slips of paper. A chafing dish with some live charcoal
in it was then procured and a boy summoned who had not
yet reached puberty.
When all was prepared, the sorcerer threw some incense and
one of the strips of paper into the chafing dish; he then took
the boys right hand and drew a square with some mystical
marks on the palm. In the center of the square he poured a little
ink, which formed the magic mirror, and told the boy to
look steadily into it without raising his head. In this mirror the
boy declared that he saw, successively, a man sweeping, seven
men with flags, an army pitching its tents, and the various officers
of state attending on the sultan. The rest is told by Lane
The sorcerer now addressed himself to me, and asked me
if I wished the boy to see any person who was absent or dead.
I named Lord Nelson, of whom the boy had evidently never
heard, for it was with much difficulty that he pronounced the
name after several trials. The magician desired the boy to say
to the Sultan My master salutes thee and desires thee to bring
Lord Nelson; bring him before my eyes that I may see him
speedily. The boy then said so, and almost immediately added,
A messenger has gone and brought back a man dressed in a
black (or rather, dark blue) suit of European clothes; the man
has lost his left arm. He then paused for a moment or two, and
looking more intently and more closely into the ink, said No,
he has not lost his left arm, but it is placed on his breast.
This correction made his description more striking than it
had been without it; since Lord Nelson generally had his empty
sleeve attached to the breast of his coat; but it was the right arm
that he had lost. Without saying that I suspected the boy had
made a mistake, I asked the magician whether the objects appeared
in the ink as if actually before the eyes, or as if in a glass,
which makes the right appear left. He answered that they appeared
as in a mirror. This rendered the boys description
On another occasion Shakespeare was described with the
most minute exactness, both as to person and dress, and I
might add several other cases in which the same magician has
excited astonishment in the sober minds of several Englishmen
of my acquaintance.
Lanes account may be compared with a similar one given
by A. W. Kinglake, the author of Eöthen (1844).
Waite, Arthur Edward. The Occult Sciences. 1891. Reprint, Secaucus,
N.J. University Books, 1974.