To Point the Magic Wand or Finger

Today, the phrase ‘to point a finger’ is used in an accusatory sense. Formerly, however, it was considered unlucky to point at someone, which is the underlying reason why etiquette today considers it uncouth or ill-mannered – customs remain even if the reasons for them have changed or have been lost in obscurity.

To point at any specific object or person has always been considered unlucky because it meant concentrating bad luck in a particular direction by drawing the attention of evil spirits. Consequently, ‘pointing a finger’ at someone became synonymous with seeking retribution on or harming a person. Curiously, to be pointed was a potent form of sorcery in Australian Aboriginal tradition. Whatever tool – finger, bone, or any other – was used to point and whatever spell or words were used, once the intended victim knew he had been pointed, he would sicken and die, unless a medicine man reversed the process. On the other side of the world, in Europe, witches allegedly used pointing with wands, sticks, and staffs for nefarious purposes in black magic.

Like pointing a finger, the wand was regarded in the ancient world as the agency of intense psychic energy and, therefore, a means of aiming magic power at a particular object. This made the wand an agent of transformation, and as such, it is found in countless legends worldwide. In all mythologies, wands and rods have obvious magical powers. We have only to think of all the tales involving magic wands contained in our folklore and fairy stories. The Fairy Queen is invariably shown bearing her wand and performing marvels. 

A stick or staff, the simplest form of the wand, must have been one of humankind’s earliest weapons against wild animals and human foes. As a phallic symbol, it is also a sign of power and virility. As symbols of authority, the wand, the crook, and the rod can be traced back to the priest-kings and magicians of antiquity. In ancient times, amongst pastoral peoples, the patriarch bore the shepherd’s crook as a symbol of authority over his tribe. In ancient Egypt, the crook was an emblem of supremacy and discipline. The most famous examples of rods used for supernatural purposes were the rods of Moses and his brother Aaron, employed to divide the waters of the Red Sea, to confound the enchantment of the Pharaoh’s magicians, and to cause water to gush from a rock in the desert. The rods of Moses and Aaron are believed to be the origin of the crosier or pastoral staff of Christian bishops.

Over time, the wand or crook developed into the insignia of royalty known as the sceptre. In the form of a sceptre, the wand represents temporal power. In Britain, the sceptre, symbolic of kingly authority, is customarily placed in a monarch’s right hand at his or her coronation. The white staff carried by the Lord Chancellor symbolises the execution of his duties with purity and uprightness, as well as the authority invested in him by the monarch. As the king’s inviolable emissary, the herald also carried a staff of office. Further examples of the wand representing power are the swagger sticks carried by army officers and the baton used by an orchestra’s conductor. The modern conjurer’s wand, used for pointing and so essential in performing magic tricks, is a remnant of the magician’s wand of old. Any appearance on stage by the conjurer without a wand, the symbol of psychic powers, would dissipate the magician’s authority and his power of command over the audience.

Another close connection to the magic wand is the divining or dowsing rod, which can also only be used effectively by pointing it. The discovery of something concealed by a wand or rod has been practised since the beginning of history by most races. Dowsing, using a forked stick or bent wire, is an ancient form of divination. This technique can be used to find underground water, mineral deposits, oil, lost objects, treasure, missing persons, or murder victims. It is impossible to determine the origin of the first divining or dowsing rod, but the Hindu Vedas mention it, and it seems to have been widely used amongst the ancient Chaldeans and Egyptians. The divining rod could be regarded as an atrophied vestige of the magic once associated with sacred trees. The functions of the divining rod were not restricted to the search for water or buried treasure in ancient days. Amongst the Greeks and Romans and the Druids of Britain, France, and Ireland, the divining rod also had many magical uses. 

It has not yet been explained why certain individuals, whose honour and good faith are beyond suspicion, have a specific ability to which the divining rod responds by twisting in their grasp. Many professional dowsers will be the first to admit that they do not know how or why the selected dowsing or divining rod moves in their hands, and not in the hands of someone else. The cutting and preparation of the dowsing rod, in all countries throughout the ages, had been accompanied by great ceremony, requiring the rod to be severed at a particular moment and from a particular kind of tree – varying from country to country. Whereas the Chinese favoured the peach tree, in Europe, the hazel, as well as the willow, blackthorn, and mistletoe, were especially popular.

When using a divining rod, both forks of the Y-shaped branch are held, not too firmly, with the palms of the hands turned upward, the main stem of the branch parallel to the ground. The holder then slowly advances towards the location where water or minerals are suspected to be. When the auspicious spot is reached, and there is water or a mineral deposited below, the rod turns in the diviner’s hands and bends towards the ground like a magnetised pointer. In World War I, the army used dowsers to help locate unexploded mines and shells.


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