Water’s ability to cleanse obviously made it a natural choice for ritual washing (such as baptism in Christianity and mikvah in Judaism). And its power to soothe a minor burn, quench a thirst, or provide other relief naturally inspired further medicinal uses. Belief in the supernatural extended the supposed powers of water in various ways—hence this overview of what we may simply call “magic waters.” It is divided into two parts, Natural Water and Imbued Water.1
The “natural waters” category of magic waters consists of those directly produced by nature—no matter how people may regard them. Examples are those that are “miraculous” (such as the River Jordan or the spring at Lourdes), talismanic (say, kept in a sealed vial as a charm), mineral-enriched (such as those of secular “healing” springs), and fakeloric (such as the pseudo-legendary Fountain of Youth in St. Augustine, Florida).
So important was water to the ancients that temples—and even cities and empires—were built around it. Often considered sacred, these rivers, lakes, and springs played central roles in the lives of worshippers.
Such was the status of the Jordan River, which connects the Dead Sea and the Mediterranean and is sacred to two faiths. For Jews, it miraculously parted for Joshua to lead his people on dry ground across the Jordan and into the Promised Land (Joshua 3–4). For Christians, it was the water in which John the Baptist baptized Jesus (Matthew 3:13–16). It was also, for both, a source of healing, as told in 2 Kings 5:14, where Naaman bathed in Jordan’s waters and was cured of leprosy.
In ancient Greece, springs were believed to have supernatural powers because they were the dwelling places of gods. (Sacred waters can be differentiated from secular “healing” springs, discussed in a subsequent section.)
Around the world are alleged “miracle” springs, many promoted by Roman Catholics. The most famous of these is Lourdes in southern France. There, in 1858, fourteen-year-old Bernadette Soubirous (1844–1879) claimed to see the Virgin Mary, who directed her to the spring at the back of a grotto. Soon tales of miraculous healings surfaced, attributed to Bernadette. Ironically, the healing powers of the water were not for her, who died young. That fact did not provoke much skepticism, and she was nevertheless canonized as a saint in 1933.
Skeptics observe that the criterion for proclaiming cures to be miraculous is that they are “medically inexplicable,” but that is only engaging in a logical fallacy known as an argument from ignorance. (That is, one cannot draw a conclusion from a lack of knowledge.) Moreover, there are other explanations for apparent cures: misdiagnosis, psychosomatic conditions, prior medical treatment, the body’s own healing power, and other effects.
Supposed cures were once certified by the medical bureau of Lourdes (beginning in 1884). However, in 2008 there was something of a rebellion by the doctors, who objected to being in the “miracle” business. They determined from then on only to indicate whether cases are “remarkable”—since remarkable healings can happen to anyone, independent of religious shrines and supposed magical water (Nickell 2008).
It is only a short step from conviction that the application of water from a miraculous source can be curative to the belief that a small amount contained as a talisman (for example, in a little vial or bottle) can also effect cures. (A talisman is an object believed to have magical properties, such as bringing good luck or offering protection.) For talismanic power the water does not actually need to be used; supposedly it works its magic even from the closed container.
It should not be surprising that pilgrims visiting the Holy Land during the Byzantine era could purchase small ampulla—bottles now known as “pilgrim jars”—suitable for obtaining some sacred water, as from the Jordan River, to take home as a talisman or souvenir. For Christians, the bottles were embossed with crosses—and so might alternately hold sacred oil from a lamp at the Holy Sepulcher, a splinter from the (alleged) True Cross, or other holy item. There were similar pilgrim jars for Jews as well, embossed with menorahs (Goudeau et al. 2014).
Pilgrim jars were especially common during the period 600–900 CE, like the one shown here (Figure 1) from the author’s collection (measuring about 3.5” high). Of course, we can only say it might have held magical water from the Jordan River itself, or from a sacred spring, or the like.
Shown with more certainty is the tiny 1.75” high bottle beside the pilgrim jar—it actually being embossed “JORDAN/WATER//PAN AM/1901.” As indicated, such vessels were souvenirs of the Pan American Exposition, a world’s fair held in Buffalo, New York, from May 1 through November 2, 1901. More than one eBay listing has opined that the bottles held “Holy Water,” but I think these sources have jumped to a conclusion. I suspect the bottles held just what they say they did, no more or less, and were not exclusively for Catholics (like those bottles we will discuss presently). These bottles—whether thought talismans or not—show the popularity of Jordan water a century ago, and bottles of the venerated liquid are still sold.
Also shown in Figure 1 is a souvenir “Lourdes Cross” containing drops of water from the famous “miracle” spring. For the superstitious, this could represent combined talismanic powers—that of the cross itself and that also emanating from the water.
Among the earliest “healing” practices is hydrotherapy—the internal or external use of water for treating disease. Indeed, drinking from, or bathing in, springs, pools, or streams for therapeutic purposes predates recorded history. Ancient Greece and Rome placed therapeutic centers at mineral springs across their realms. In the Americas, too, native peoples also believed in the restorative powers of mineral waters; Aztec emperor Montezuma, for instance, used a spa called Agua Hedionda (Nickell 2005).
In my travels I have visited many famous spas around the world. A historic one at Pozzuoli, Italy (which I visited with investigator Luigi Garlaschelli), is in a volcano that formed 4,000 years ago and last erupted in 1198. It yields sulfurous steam that was considered beneficial for respiratory ailments, hot mud used to treat rheumatism, and thermo-mineral waters with widespread curative claims (Nickell 2005).
The emphasis at a great number of European and American springs was on the natural inclusions in the water: iodine to treat goiter, lithium for manic depression, etc., as well as assorted minerals in general, the springs often being billed as “health-giving mineral waters.” Actually, most such springs (such as New York’s celebrated Saratoga Springs) contain dissolved salts, and it became usual to set the level at fifty grains per gallon to justify the designation “mineral water.” The beneficial effects were commonly debated and probably often negligible. With exceptions, most mineral springs simply offered a drink of cool water or a soothing bath along with the placebo effect.
The tallest bottle pictured in Figure 1 (measuring about 8” tall) is a rather typical one for mineral-springs water. Its label bills it as “Delicious/Sparkling/Healthful.” It was “Lithiated and Carbonated” (i.e., contained additives), sold by the “White Rock Mi[nera]l Springs Co.” of Waukesha, Wisconsin. Interestingly, the upper label instructs, “Lay this bottle on its side / Always cool before opening.” This shows us the early bottles were corked (and so predate the modern crimped-metal cap known as a “crown cork”). When a bottle was laid on its side, the cork would be kept wet; otherwise, it would dry and shrink, and the pressure of the gas would cause it to “pop” out (hence the name “pop bottle”) (Nickell 2011).2 The earliest cork-stoppered soda bottles often had rounded bottoms so the bottles could not be stood upright.
The legend of a “Fountain of Youth” may have originated in India. By the seventh century, the tale had arrived in Europe where it was widely discussed through the Middle Ages. In 1546, German Renaissance artist Lucas Cranach produced a popular painting of the miraculous spring. It depicts wrinkled, frail women entering the pool and exiting as young beauties on the other side. (But since the fountain spouting the water is graced with the statues of Venus and Cupid, it is really a metaphoric fountain of love—the true source of immortality.)
Earlier, reportedly, Spanish explorer Ponce de León (ca. 1460–1521) had searched for the fabled spring. Having accompanied Columbus on his second voyage to America (1493) and conquered Puerto Rico in 1509, he was rewarded with permission to search for a land called “Bimini.” Supposedly, according to a Native American legend, that region had a fountain with marvelously curative water, and anyone who drank from it would never age. Ponce de León did land at St. Augustine and sailed through the Keys and on to Cuba but, finding nothing, abandoned his quest. Returning in 1521 intending to conquer the Native Americans and colonize Florida, he was mortally wounded by an arrow (Nickell 2005).
The spring that is now advertised as the one sought by the conquistador lacks any historical or archaeological evidence of such a connection. It was a tourist attraction as early as the 1860s, but its present form awaited purchase by Luella Day McConnell in 1904. She had returned from the Klondike gold rush of the late 1890s with money and the nickname “Diamond Lil,” and by 1909 she was selling promotional postcards and well water. Until her death in an auto accident in 1927, she regaled tourists with tall tales about the site. She was succeeded by Walter B. Frazier, who made it a great attraction (“Fountain” 2018).
The souvenir bottle shown in Figure 1 (measuring about 1.5” in diameter by 3.75” tall) is machine made and dates from about the middle of the twentieth century. I recall drinking from the Fountain of Youth myself as a boy, and I can only say, look at me now.
This second category of magic waters comprises those that have supposedly been imbued with alleged “energy” or “power.” (They may be made with water that contains natural inclusions such as minerals or additives such as chlorine, etc., but they could also be made with distilled water. The important thing is that whatever may be added during the transformational process does not substantially remain; only the imbued power does. These waters are called Holy, homeopathic, magnetized, pyramid-“energized,” and gem-“informed.”
Holy water is blessed by a religious figure. In Catholicism, its use is nonscriptural, dating back to ca. 400 CE. It is used as a sacramental (recalling baptism), as well as a means of purification, blessing places and people, healing, and repelling evil. During the Middle Ages, holy water was kept under lock and key to prevent its theft for unauthorized magical practices (“Holy” 2018).
Some churches offer take-home holy water at external spigots. Otherwise it is found in a font, usually at the entrance of a church. (Unfortunately and ironically, these may become sources of viral and bacterial infection [Fields 2013].)
That holy water can repel evil has long been believed by Catholics. St. Theresa wrote, “I know by frequent experience that there is nothing which puts the devils to flight like Holy water” (“Holy” 2018). However, in my investigations of supposed demon-possessed houses—like that on which the horror movie The Conjuring (2013) is based—I have discovered that “demons” are best routed simply by learning the true facts behind an “outbreak” (Nickell 2016a).
In addition to Roman Catholics, Anglicans and Eastern Christians also use holy water, as do some other religious sects, including Buddhist and Hindu traditions. In modern Wicca practice, “holy water” may be any water held sacred to the user (e.g., that from a shrine or sacred spring), rainwater collected on a special day, or water “charged” by a full moon or eclipse—among many possibilities. (I am omitting here those with added herbs or other substances) (“Magic” 2018).
A type of “alternative” medicine, homeopathy takes the idea of magic water in an incredible (i.e., not credible) direction.
Homeopathy was created by Samuel Hahnemann in Germany in 1796 based on his belief that “like cures like”—that a substance capable of causing disease symptoms in a healthy person can cure symptoms in a sick person. Moreover, Hahnemann advocated “homeopathic dilution” by which the supposedly curative substance was diluted and re-diluted—in water or alcohol—to an extreme degree. In fact, scientists observe that the remaining amount of a supposedly curative substance is so infinitesimal that it cannot have any effect because not a single molecule of the original remains!
In other words, one is left with water that is just water, although homoeopathists insist the water has a “memory”—a claim that is scientific nonsense. So homeopathic remedies, while worthless, are not harmful—right? Unfortunately, no. While homeopathic products may contain only water, there are exceptions of which buyers should beware. For instance, several brands of homeopathic teething products were discovered to additionally contain belladonna (a.k.a. “deadly nightshade”). While that is allegedly used in trace dosages, supposedly to ease inflammation, laboratory analysis showed some of the products contained varying amounts of the potentially toxic ingredient. Relatively unregulated, the $6.4 billion homeopathic industry is facing increasing scrutiny by federal drug overseers (Nickell 2016b). In 2018, our international organization, the Center for Inquiry (CFI), initiated a lawsuit against CVS Pharmacy for fraud for advertising and selling useless homeopathic “remedies” (Brayton 2018). In May 2019, CFI served a similar lawsuit against Walmart (Center for Inquiry 2019; also see News and Comment, this issue).
German physician Franz Anton Mesmer (1734–1815) postulated an invisible natural force in all living beings called “animal magnetism.” It was later termed mesmerism, and it is now known that Mesmer was inadvertently using hypnotic suggestion to successfully relieve “the hysterical symptoms of susceptible young females” (Lyons and Petrucelli 1978, 489).
In his experiments, Mesmer used iron magnets and water “magnetized” by them for healing, and patients reported feeling “unusual currents” flowing through them. Later, Mesmer discovered he could achieve the same effect by merely moving his hands above his patients—the result of what is now understood to be the power of suggestion (“Franz Mesmer” 2018).
Today, various questionable therapies involve magnets and “magnetized” water. In fact, only iron and some other metals can be permanently magnetized. An external magnetic field applied to water will exert only a miniscule effect, and that goes away upon removal of the external field. Quackwatch’s Dr. Stephen Barrett (1998) says a marketed “Magnetic Mug” would cease to have even a very tiny effect “as soon as the liquid leaves the mug.” Barrett goes on to call the mug claims “imaginative nonsense.” Any pain relief or other alleged beneficial effect would be attributable to suggestion (i.e., the placebo effect).
Launched by the pseudoscientific book Psychic Discoveries Behind the Iron Curtain (Ostrander and Schroeder 1970, 366–376), the supposedly mystical power of the pyramids became an American craze of the 1970s and beyond. Supposedly, small models of the Great Pyramid of Cheops generated some mysterious power that the authors, in New Age fashion, referred to as “energy.”
Initially based on a Czechoslovakian patent, models of cardboard, sticks, wire, and other materials were alleged to sharpen razor blades(!), preserve food (especially “mummify meat”), impart a mellower taste to wine, perk up houseplants, and perform other marvels, including (when worn like a dunce cap) relieving headaches and restoring vitality. Not surprising, scientific evidence was lacking (Nickell 2004, 200–203).
On an investigative tour of Russia in 2001 (Nickell 2004, 200–206), I found pyramid power on the rise—almost literally: one pyramid I visited (the tallest of about twenty) towered forty-four meters (about 144.4 feet, or some twelve stories). It was constructed of translucent Plexiglas panels over a wood framework. It was closed when I arrived with Russian friends, Valerii Kuvakin and his wife, Uliya, but a custodian consented (following a small bribe) to show us around. The pyramid was largely empty but held cases of bottled water that were supposedly being energized for curative purposes.
A booklet I bought titled (in translation) Pyramids of the Third Millennium, foresaw a new physics, a new biology, and so on, even claiming that the new pyramids had reduced the incidence of cancer, AIDS, and other diseases in the areas surrounding them. However, Valerii noted the claims were published without any supporting data, and physicist Edward Kruglyakov, who had previously visited the site and suggested it to me, also found them without any scientific merit. A cordoned-off central area of our pyramid was presently “energizing” some crystal spheres, and we were cautioned that the energy there was so intense that one could lose consciousness. On impulse, I ducked under the rope and stood in that area for a time, while Valerii photographed me, barely containing his amusement. But I felt no effect whatever. No effect is what we also can suspect of pyramid power applied to water.
Supposed “information” contained in rocks, minerals, and crystals can—according to some New Age sources (e.g., Gienger and Goebel 2007)—be transferred (in some mystical way) to water. Thus, proponents say, the water has become “infused” with so-called “crystalline energy”—which is not a scientific concept. (Also known as “crystal water,” it is distinguished from mineral water, which, as discussed earlier, simply contains traces of minerals.) The “infusions” can be made in various ways—as by soaking, steaming, or boiling, although one is cautioned to beware of the multitude of toxic stones! Alternately, one can insert a test tube with the stone into a container of water or stand a glass of water on a slice of the stone; thus, the stone and water never touch! It is not surprising, therefore, that proponents compare the liquid remedies to homeopathic ones (Gienger and Goebel 2007, 6).
The practice derives from the therapeutic effects that allegedly come from applying a “healing” stone to the body or wearing or carrying it as a talisman. For instance, amethyst is said to have (among other things) “a blood-pressure lowering effect.” By supposedly transferring the “information” and/or “energy” to water (the stone is not intended to dissolve in it), the “remedy” may be utilized more effectively. For example, it can be drunk, used in a compress, generously applied over a larger area, or even bathed in (Gienger and Goebel 2007, 6–10, 18–33, 66).
Claims to the contrary, however, there is no credible scientific evidence for special therapeutic effects of gem water per se—other than as a placebo.
* * *
As these many examples show, water deemed to be in some way “magic” has existed in some form since the most ancient times, and it continues today along with newer forms, including that allegedly imbued with various so-called “energies.” As a practical matter, however, we see that—except for certain natural additives such as lithium or various artificially introduced substances—water is basically water. Claims that it is magical are pseudoscientific—indeed, examples of what is called “magical thinking”—and such belief is perpetually trumped in the real world by science.
- The list of examples in these two categories is not exhaustive.
- This White Rock bottle’s label continued to bear the words quoted, “Lay this bottle on its side,” for decades after the crown cork was in use—apparently for historical continuity.
- Barrett, Stephen, MD. 1998. Magnetize Your Beverages? Available online at https://www.mwa.co.th/downloadprd01/article/eng/magnets.pdf; accessed August 1, 2018.
- Brayton, Ed. 2018. CFI Sues CVS for Homeopathy Fraud. Available online at www.patheos.com/blogs/dispatches/2018/07/10/cfi-sues-cvs-for-homeopathy-fraud/; accessed August 16, 2018.
- Center for Inquiry. 2019. Walmart Sued for Fraud. May 20. The full text of the complaint against Walmart is on the CFI website at https://centerforinquiry.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/CFI-v-Walmart.pdf.
- Fields, Liz. 2013. Holy Water May Be Harmful to Your Health, Study Finds. Available online at https://abcnews.go.com/Health/study-holy-water-harmful-health/story?id=20257722; accessed August 16, 2018.
- Fountain of Youth. 2018. Available online at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Foutain_of_Youth; accessed August 15, 2018.
- Franz Mesmer. 2018. Available online at https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/nursing-and-health-professions/franz-mesmer; accessed August 1, 2018.
- Gienger, Michael, and Joachim Goebel. 2007. Gem Water: How to Prepare and Use More Than 130 Crystal Waters for Therapeutic Treatments. Forres, Great Britain: Earthdancer.
- Goudeau, Radbond, et al. 2014. The Imagined and Real Jerusalem in Art and Architecture. Boston: Brill, 170–183.
- Holy water. 2018. Available online at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holy_water#History; accessed August 16, 2018.
- Lyons, Albert S., and R. Joseph Petrucelli. 1978. Medicine: An Illustrated History. New York: Harry N. Abrams.
- Magic formulary. 2018. Available online at www.thesmartwitch.com/The_Smart_Witch_Formulary.html; accessed August 22, 2018.
- Nickell, Joe. 2004. The Mystery Chronicles. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky.
- ———. 2005. Healing waters. Skeptical Briefs. Part I: Spas (September): 5–7; Part II: Miraculous springs (December): 6–7.
- ———. 2008. Lourdes Medical Bureau rebels. Available online at https://centerforinquiry.org/blog/lourdes_medical_bureau_rebels/; accessed August 14, 2018.
- ———. 2011. ‘Pop’ culture: Patent medicines become soda drinks. Skeptical Inquirer 35(1) (January/February).
- ———. 2016a. Dispelling demons: Detective work at the Conjuring house. Skeptical Inquirer 40(6) (November/December).
- ———. 2016b. Harmless homeopathy horror? Available online at https://centerforinquiry.org/blog/harmless_homeopathy_horror; accessed August 16, 2018.
- Ostrander, Sheila, and Lynn Schroeder. 1970. Psychic Discoveries Behind the Iron Curtain. New York: Bantam Books.