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Digital Subscriptions > Skeptical Inquirer > Sept/october 2019 > Magic Waters

Magic Waters

There is a long history of belief in the supposed “magical” powers of water. Some are “natural” attributes considered miraculous, talismanic, or legendary; others involve waters supposedly “imbued” with “energy” or “powers” such as memory (homeopathy). All are examples of magical, supernatural thinking trumped by science.

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

Natural Waters

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).

Miraculous

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, fourteenyear-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.

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SPECIAL ISSUE: THE HEALTH WARS: IN THE TRENCHES AGAINST ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE