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Castaneda, Carlos

Carlos Castaneda

The Latin American writer Carlos Castaneda (c. 1925-1998) gained international fame for a series of 11 books, beginning with 1968's The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge, that recounted what he said were lessons in spirituality and perception imparted to him by a shaman of the Yaqui Native American tribe in the northern Mexican desert.

With the usage of peyote and other hallucinogenic drugs playing a major role in his teachings, Castaneda's writings arrived in tandem with the full flowering of the 1960s counterculture. His influence has proved more durable than that exerted by other writers of the 1960s, however. All his books have remained in print for decades and continue to sell well into the twenty-first century. Castaneda was an elusive figure who refused to be photographed, gave sparse accounts of his own life, and indeed argued that linear biographical details were unimportant to or even distorted his message. The veracity of the central accounts in his books has been widely challenged in recent years, but Castaneda's very elusiveness has made it difficult to fully discredit or confirm his writings.

Of Uncertain Nationality

The uncertainty over Castaneda's background begins with his place and date of birth. Among the few pieces of solid documentation of Castaneda's identity is a set of papers pertaining to his entry into the United States in 1951; they assign his birth to Cajamarca, Peru, on December 25, 1925. Castaneda himself, however, maintained that he was Brazilian, born in São Paulo on December 25, 1931, and other accounts date his birth as late as 1935. He said that he had been placed in a boarding school in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where he would have learned to speak Spanish. Castaneda's defenders point to the publication of a 1975 interview in a Brazilian magazine in which he appeared to speak Portuguese fluently, among other details; his detractors cite records showing that he apparently attended several educational institutions in Peru, including the National School of Fine Arts in Lima. His father, a metalsmith of Basque descent, was (again according to immigration records) named César Arana Burungaray, but Carlos later began to use his mother's surname, Castaneda. The name, if indeed Spanish, would be spelled Castañeda, and it is sometimes given that way in Spanish books. In the United States, however, the author used only Castaneda.

Castaneda's decision to come to the United States may have been precipitated by the deterioration of a marriage or relationship in Peru, in the course of which he had fathered a daughter. He apparently lived in San Francisco for a time and then moved in with a family in Los Angeles. Beginning in 1955 he took courses at Los Angeles Community College, and he received an associate's degree from that institution in 1959, also studying creative writing. That year he married telephone company employee Margaret Runyon, a distant relative of the writer Damon Runyon, in a ceremony in Tijuana, Mexico; she recounted that he started working on a book called Dial Operator but did not finish it. The couple soon separated, but remained involved with one another and were divorced only in 1973.

In the fall of 1959, Castaneda enrolled at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), studying anthropology. He got an A for a paper he submitted in a California ethnography class, based on an interview he did with a local (but unnamed) Native American on the uses of the drug jimson weed (datura stramonium) in religious ceremonies. Castaneda was short on funds, and his education was interrupted several times by stints driving a taxi, working in a liquor store, and trips to the desert on both sides of the border to collect medicinal plants. However, he managed to graduate from UCLA in 1962 with a bachelor's degree in anthropology.

By that time, according to his own accounts in The Teachings of Don Juan, Castaneda had already encountered the figure who would change his life. His accounts place his first meeting with Don Juan Matus, an aging member of the Yaqui tribe, at a bus station in Nogales, Arizona, in the summer of 1960. Intrigued by the man's quizzical way of speaking, Castaneda visited him again, and after he had made several visits to Don Juan's home in the Mexican desert, the Native American, who spoke Spanish well, revealed that he was a diablero, or sorcerer. Castaneda dated the beginning of his apprenticeship to the year 1961. To Castaneda's teachers at UCLA, he seemed like solid gold—a student who had sought out a Native American informant with amazing forms of knowledge hitherto unknown outside his own community. Castaneda enrolled in the anthropology graduate program in 1962, receiving his master's degree two years later.

Described Drug Usage

Castaneda's first three books, The Teachings of Don Juan, A Separate Reality: Further Conversations with Don Juan (1971), and Journey to Ixtlan: The Lessons of Don Juan (1972), described the teachings he received from Don Juan and from another sorcerer (or brujos) to whom his teacher introduced him. The Teachings of Don Juan was initially published by the University of California Press; racking up superb sales for an academic title, it was acquired by the mainstream publisher Simon & Schuster, which issued the other two books, as well as almost all of Castaneda's later books. Journey to Ixtlan was accepted, with minor modifications, as Castaneda's Ph.D. thesis, and he was granted that degree in 1973.

Don Juan's sessions with Castaneda often began with drugs: peyote, jimson weed, and hallucinogenic mushrooms. With the help of those, the shaman led his student toward the apprehension of an alternate reality, only with difficulty described in words. Castaneda was, he said, identified by Don Juan as a nagual (pronounced na-WHAL), a spiritual leader; the word also meant a kind of spirit that existed in a realm beyond that of ordinary reality. Castaneda described how he communed and conversed with wild animals and entered into their existences, at one point being transformed by Don Juan into a crow and gaining the power of flight. Part of the appeal of Castaneda's books lay in the way he presented himself: he did not pretend to be a saint possessed of special enlightenment but rather depicted himself as something of a bumbler who had to be helped to enlightenment step by step. His descriptions of the Mexican desert environment were also natural and evocative, although some readers wondered how he could so consistently escape the risks of heat exposure and insect bites.

Castaneda said that his books were assembled from field notes, but he never actually produced the notes and later said that they had been lost. One big question mark that surrounded his books from the beginning was that no one else had seen Don Juan. Castaneda's admittedly detailed descriptions constituted the only evidence of his existence. Yaqui chieftains from the area were unable to remember any individual closely matching Don Juan's characteristics, and although other Mexican tribes, such as the Huichol ethnic group, used hallucinogenic drugs in some of the ways Castaneda described, the Yaquis themselves generally did not, and Yaqui individuals questioned by the Arizona Daily Star were unable to reconcile what they read in Castaneda's books with the traditional belief system they had learned. Another issue revolved around the fact that basic anthropological procedure would have involved learning the names of the plants Don Juan was giving to Castaneda, in Spanish or even in the Yaqui language, but Castaneda's books contained little such local detail.

Reviewers Reached Contrasting Conclusions

By the early 1970s Castaneda had received widespread praise from mainstream scholars, some of whom believed that he had expanded the frontiers of anthropology. According to Contemporary Authors, Paul Riesman, writing in the New York Times Book Review, asserted that “Castaneda makes it clear that the teachings of Don Juan do tell us something of how the world really is.” Around that time, however, a contrary strain began to emerge in writing about Castaneda, with novelist Joyce Carol Oates leading the charge in a New York Times letter to the editor. She claimed that Castaneda's writings bore the mark of pure fiction. Among Castaneda's fiercest critics was Richard de Mille (the son of film director Cecil B. de Mille), who located passages in books by Mircea Eliade and other writers on the subject of transcendent experience that sounded similar to passages in Castaneda's writings. Castaneda's supporters rejoined that the language of mystical experience had shown similarities across the centuries as new writers rediscovered it. Many of de Mille's arguments were presented in his book Castaneda's Journey: The Power and the Allegory.

It was around the time that journalists began to look into his background that Castaneda withdrew from the public view. For about a decade after the Brazilian interview (published in a magazine called Revista Veja) he gave no interviews at all. He continued to write, however, extending the ideas of his previous books but focusing less on the figure of Don Juan. Instead, in books such as Tales of Power (1974), The Second Ring of Power (1977), and The Fire from Within (1984), Castaneda interwove personal observations with more general philosophical themes. Although he said in the 1970s that he was finished writing about Don Juan, he returned to the shaman for a another full-length book, The Power of Silence: Further Lessons of Don Juan.

In the early 1990s Castaneda resurfaced with a new book, The Art of Dreaming (1994), and a new system of body movements called Tensegrity that adapted elements of martial arts and tai chi to create what Castaneda promised would be the optimal conditions for the realizations of Don Juan's insights. The term “tensegrity” was borrowed from the writings of R. Buckminster Fuller, although as with “nagual” (and its companion, “tonal”), Castaneda attached his own meaning to the word. Charging fees ranging from $200 to $1,000, Castaneda often turned over Tensegrity seminars to his followers, who by the 1990s included a group of young women with whom he was alleged to have carried on sexual affairs. The Don Juan books were translated into 17 languages and amassed sales in excess of ten million copies, and Castaneda became a wealthy man with an estate valued at an estimated $20 million.

Suffering from liver cancer, Castaneda wrote a final book, The Active Side of Infinity, in which he seemed to foresee his own demise. His death was as mysterious as his life; he died on April 27, 1998, in the Westwood neighborhood of Los Angeles, but his passing was not announced until the following summer. His death certificate listed him as a teacher in the Beverly Hills, California, school district, which could produce no evidence that he had ever worked there. By the early 2000s, a preponderance of scholarly opinion held that the Don Juan books comprised an elaborate hoax. William W. Kelly, the chairman of the Yale University anthropology department, told the online magazine Salon that “I doubt you'll find an anthropologist of my generation who regards Castaneda as anything but a clever con man.” His publishers and his many admirers, however, continued to assert the veracity of his remarkable experiences. Castaneda was, in the words of Psychology Today, “the 20th century's own sorcerer's apprentice. He is the invisible man, ephemeral, evanescent: now you see him, now you don't.”


De Mille, Richard, Castaneda's Journey: The Power and the Allegory, Capra, 1976.

De Mille, Richard, The Don Juan Papers: Further Castaneda Controversies, Wadsworth, 1990.

Sanchez, Victor, and Robert Nelson, The Teachings of Don Carlos: Practical Applications of the Works of Carlos Castaneda, Bear & Co., 1995.


Arizona Daily Star, June 20, 1998.

Guardian (London, England), June 23, 1998.

Independent (London, England), July 17, 1998.

International Herald Tribune, June 16, 2004.

Los Angeles Magazine, May 1996.

Psychology Today, March-April 1996.

San Francisco Chronicle, August 24, 2003.

Seattle Times, June 19, 1998.

Skeptical Inquirer, September-October 1999.


“Carlos (Cesar Arana) Castaneda (1925-1998),” Books and Writers, (January 19, 2008).

Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2008. (January 19, 2008).

“The Dark Legacy of Carlos Castaneda,” Salon, (January 19, 2008).

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Castaneda, Carlos

Castaneda, Carlos 1925-1998


Born in Cajamarca, Peru, in 1925, Carlos Castaneda moved to Los Angeles in 1955. He completed creative writing classes before enrolling at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), in 1959. Castanedas third book was approved as his UCLA doctoral dissertation in anthropology in 1973, after he changed its title and added a dissertation abstract (Fikes 1993, pp. 46, 101). His ten books (now twelve) had sold some eight million copies in seventeen languages when he died in 1998.

From 1968 to 1976, Castaneda was Americas most celebrated anthropologist. His fame was subsequently eclipsed as scholarly critiques exposed fraudulent elements in his ethnography. Debunking, however, has done little to diminish Castanedas standing as a New Age icon. Within that distinctly antirational audience, he inspired shamanic tourism and a religious cult.

Most anthropologists assumed that Castanedas first three or four books were ethnographically factual. The most compelling evidence of fraud in Castanedas books is textual inconsistency, especially two mutually incompatible assertions made by him, or his fictional (composite) mentor, don Juan Matus, whom Castaneda called a Yaqui Indian sorcerer. The ingestion of three species of sacred plants was, Castaneda claimed, integral to his apprenticeship with don Juan, who related the use of Datura stramonium (jimsonweed) and Psilocybe mexicana (sacred mushrooms) to the acquisition of power he called an ally. He related the use of Lophophora williamsii (peyote) to acquisition of wisdom, or knowledge of the right way to live (Castaneda 1969, p. 9). In Castanedas third book, don Juan revoked the value originally ascribed to acquiring allies, via jimsonweed and mushrooms, and learning righteousness with peyote, proclaiming instead that administration of those plants was merely a strategy to shatter Castanedas dogmatic certainty about his worldview. By removing that obstacle, don Juan could implant his perspective on sorcery (Castaneda 1974, pp. xii-xiii; Fikes 1996, p. 140). Don Juans new emphasis on his teaching of sorcery annuls the tutelary function he originally attributed to the spirits contained in peyote and the other plant allies.

Self-contradictory statements resulted when Castaneda addressed skeptics without reconciling those responses with his original statements. In 1968, shortly after Castanedas first book appeared, R. Gordon Wasson (18981986), a renowned specialist on sacred mushrooms, wrote to Castaneda. Replying to Wasson, Castaneda, without justification, removed jimsonweed (Datura ) from the category of plants possessing allies, as originally defined by don Juan (Castaneda 1969, p. 9). Castanedas letter to Wasson asserted that, unlike peyote and Jimson weed, the mushrooms contained don Juans ally. Richard de Mille recognized another textual inconsistency in Castanedas letter. Don Juan allegedly imposed a rule of total secrecy about revealing how he collected those mushrooms (de Mille 1980, p. 323). Castaneda violated that rule by divulging details: Don Juan always picked the mushrooms with his left hand, transferred them to his right, and then put them through the neck of the gourd (1980, p. 324). Another textual inconsistency documented by de Mille (1980, pp. 322329) concerns Castanedas field notes, which put him in Sonora, Mexico, on September 6, 1968, the same day he dated his letter from Los Angeles to Wasson.

Disparities between Castanedas claims and the reports of independent researchers also attest to fabrication. Castanedas method of achieving ecstasy by smoking a mixture of plantsincluding psilocybin mushroomshas never been corroborated by any other ethnographer. Actual verification is impossible because most of the plants in that mixture were never identified. His claim of becoming a crow after smoking those mushrooms, and being hypnotized by don Juan, is singular (Fikes 1996, p. 141).

Castanedas textual inconsistencies and the numerous discrepancies between his books and at least one thousand reports of independent researchers render his portrait of peyotism an inane parody. Similarly, Weston La Barre (19111996), a specialist in peyote rituals performed in the Native American Church (NAC), condemned Castanedas first two books as pseudo-ethnography (La Barre 1989, p. 272). Paradigmatic here is don Juans momentous decision to accept Castaneda as his apprentice, because Mescalito (an erroneous name for the peyote spirit) had, in the form of a dog, caroused with Castaneda (1969, pp. 3341). That assertion is aberrant (Fikes 1993, pp. 6162) and was contradicted when don Juan usurped the tutelary function originally ascribed to peyote.

Castaneda failed to distinguish the most elementary aspects of peyote meetings, including the purpose of such meetings and the leaders identity (Fikes 1996, pp. 138139; Fikes 2004). Don Juan declared that a light hovering above Castaneda in a peyote ritual was an omen. Castaneda never saw that light, and don Juan never clarified its meaning (Fikes 1996, p. 139). This unexplained omen contrasts with momentous experiences comprehended by recipients and validated by others, as illustrated by the light that led NAC leader Albert Hensley to read the biblical passage describing Jesus baptism. Hensleys revelation set a precedent for baptism in the NAC (Fikes 1996, p. 139).

Castanedas followers have sought shamans comparable to don Juan among the Yaqui (who do not venerate peyote) and Huichol (whose peyote pilgrimages are legendary). Recognizing peyote as the cornerstone of Castanedas alleged apprenticeship, American tour operators have guided sightseers into the sacred land where Huichols venerate the peyote spirit. A steadily rising tide of tourists has stimulated Mexican authorities to incarcerate Huichol peyote hunters and has incited traditional Huichols to prohibit outsiders from entering their home-land without permits (Fikes 1999; Fikes and Weigand 2004). Castanedas legacy survives in the Tensegrity cult based on his teachings.


Castaneda, Carlos. [1968] 1969. The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge. New York: Ballantine.

Castaneda, Carlos. [1972] 1974. Journey to Ixtlan: The Lessons of Don Juan. New York: Pocket Books.

de Mille, Richard, ed. 1980. The Don Juan Papers: Further Castaneda Controversies. Santa Barbara, CA: Ross-Erickson.

Fikes, Jay C. 1993. Carlos Castaneda, Academic Opportunism, and the Psychedelic Sixties. Victoria, BC: Millenia.

Fikes, Jay C. 1996. Carlos Castaneda and don Juan. In The Encyclopedia of the Paranormal, ed. Gordon Stein, 135143. Amherst, NY: Prometheus.

Fikes, Jay C. 1999. Examining Ethics, Benefits, and Perils of Tours to Mexico. In International Conference on Heritage, Multicultural Attractions, and Tourism, Vol. 1, ed. Meral Korzay, 407421. Istanbul, Turkey: Bosphorus University.

Fikes, Jay C. 2004. Peyote Ritual Use. In Shamanism: An Encyclopedia of World Beliefs, Practices, and Culture, eds. Mariko N. Walter and Eva J. N. Fridman, 336339. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.

Fikes, Jay C., and Phil C. Weigand. 2004. Sensacionalismo y etnografia: El caso de los Huicholes de Jalisco. Relaciones 25 (98): 5068.

La Barre, Weston. 1989. The Peyote Cult. 5th ed. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Jay Courtney Fikes

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Castaneda, Carlos (1925-1998)

Castaneda, Carlos (1925-1998)

An anthropologist and occultist who created a sensation with his best-selling book The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge, first published in 1968. The volume described his experiences with the mysterious Juan Matus, a Yaqui Indian from Sonora. Don Juan was represented as a sorcerer and metaphysical master of the Mexican border who taught a higher reality involving the visionary potentialities of drugs like mescaline. The books caught the imagination of a generation of spiritual seekers who were using various mind-altering drugs and the attention of social scientists who were opting for new theories about the subjective nature of reality.

Castaneda's background is somewhat obscure. His official biographies say that he was born in Sao Paulo, Brazil, in 1931. However, it is now known that he was born in Cajamarca, Peru, on December 25, 1925. He moved to Lima as a young man and studied at the Colegio Nacienal de Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe and the National Fine Arts School of Peru. He moved to San Francisco in 1951 and later attended Los Angeles City College (1955-59). He became an American citizen in 1959 and that same year enrolled in UCLA. He received his B.A. in anthropology in 1962. He pursued his graduate studies sporadically through the next decade, and he finally completed his Ph.D. in 1973.

In the meantime he published his first three books detailing the material he had learned from Don Juan. His third book, Journey to Ixtlan, had been presented as his doctoral dissertation. Anthropologists praised Castaneda, and Don Juan became a cult figure, although this elusive sorcerer seems to have manifested only to Castaneda and remained a mystery man.

There is, of course, no proof of the existence of Don Juan outside Castaneda's accounts, and his teachings are often recounted in language that sounds nearer to that of a popular thriller than that of a Yaqui Indian. Typically unconvincing phrases from Tales of Power (1975) are: "You're goofing," "You indulge like a son of a bitch," and "You nearly lost your marbles." Alan Brian, a British critic, pointed out in a London Sunday Times review (May 11, 1975) that Don Juan appears to be bursting with laughter every few pages.

In the absence of any convincing validation of the actual existence of Don Juan, many readers will prefer to regard him as a product of Castaneda's fertile imagination, a mystification of a similar kind to the Lopsang Rampa hoax. For a thoughtful and scholarly analysis of the Castaneda phenomenon, see Castaneda's Journey; The Power and the Allegory (1976) by Richard DeMille. DeMille discovered sources, published earlier, for the Don Juan material and views the books as fiction. DeMille's work created a storm within the scholarly community and led to a general discrediting of Castaneda. However, the large public tuned to his psychedelic spiritual vision seemed hardly concerned with the controversy. The reclusive Castaneda continued to publish new books in the Don Juan series through the 1980s.

Castaneda died April 27, 1998.


Benitez, Fernando. In the Magic Land of Peyote. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1975. Reprint, New York: Warner Books, 1975.

Castaneda, Carlos. The Eagle's Gift. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1981.

. Journey to Ixtlan: The Lessons of Don Juan. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972.

. The Power of Silence: Further Lessons of Don Juan. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987.

. The Second Ring of Power. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1977.

. A Separate Reality: Further Conversations with Don Juan. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1971.

. Tales of Power. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1974.

. The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968.

DeMille, Richard. Castaneda's Journey; The Power and the Allegory. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Capra Press, 1976.

, ed. Don Juan Papers: Further Castaneda Controversies. Santa Barbara, CA: Ross-Erickson, 1980. Reprint, Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 1990.

Seeing Casteneda: Reaction to the "Don Juan" Writings of Carlos Castaneda. New York: G. P. Putnam & Sons, 1976.

Silverman, David. Reading Castaneda: A Prologue to the Social Sciences. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1975.

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