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Saturday, February 24, 2024

Carlos Castaneda's Limitations

This essay is the third in a series on the failure of leading 20th century mythologists or religionists to uncover significant antecedents of the religions they studied. The first considers the work of Joseph Campbell and the second addresses Raimon Panikkar's Limitations, and the fourth concerns Mircea Eliade's Limitations.

Dr. Alice C. Linsley

Carlos Castaneda (1925-1998) was born in Peru. In 1951 he moved to the United States. He studied sculpture at the School of Fine Arts in Lima and hoped to make a living as an artist. He worked a series of odd jobs and took classes at Los Angeles Community College in philosophy, literature and creative writing. Those who knew him remember him as a consummate storyteller.

He studied anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles, earning a Ph.D. in 1973. He, along with Timothy Leary, is considered a father of the New Age movement which certainly gained momentum through his tales of shamanic mysticism.

Even before his arrival in the United State Carlos and his then wife Margaret Runyan became fascinated by the occult. He later divorced Margaret and had multiple lovers, some of whom are believed to have taken their own lives upon Castenda's death. (See The Dark Legacy of Carlos Castaneda.)

Under the tutelage of don Juan Matus, a Yaqui shaman, Castaneda entered what don Juan called "a separate reality." This reality was explored through peyote and exposure to "sacred" ceremonies and surreal Mexican environments. Casteneda claimed that his shaman tutors made his car disappear before his eyes. He also claimed to have a bilingual conversation with a coyote, turn into a crow, and learn how to fly. 

Castaneda considered don Juan his "teacher" while another shaman, don Genaro is described as his "benefactor" (Tales of Power, p. 226). Castaneda claims that don Genaro's actions had an extraordinary effect on him. "Every time I had come into contact with him I had experienced the most outlandish sensory distortion." (Tales of Power, p.6

Castaneda had a voracious appetite for the occult. At one point, he sought advice from Yogi Chen, a practitioner of esoteric Buddhism on how to produce a “double” of himself. Yogi Chen replied that there were methods for producing up to six emanations of oneself. “But why bother? Then you only have six times as much trouble.”

From 1971 to 1982, Castaneda's books sold at least 10 million copies. Castaneda's most popular titles, "A Separate Reality," "Journey to Ixtlan" and "Tales of Power," sold 10,000 copies in 2006, 8 years after the author's death. None of Castaneda's titles have ever gone out of print -- an impressive achievement for any author. His books became international best-sellers and have been translated into some 17 languages.

Castaneda's books stirred widespread interest in shamanism. It hardly mattered that his claims were debunked. His books are listed as nonfiction and don Juan and don Genaro are fictional characters. Nevertheless, having read Journey to Ixtlan and Tales of Power, I understand the appeal of his work. There is a freshness to the dialogue and at times a compelling glimpse of shamanic life, in spite of the fictional character of the works.

Tungus shaman with drum

Castaneda's Limitations

While Castaneda's works reveal an expansive imagination and fanciful literary style, his anthropological research is undisciplined, lacking in factual substance, and entirely anecdotal. It is as if he read what he could find about shamanism and then invented the perfect shamans to befriend him. His tales include all the classic elements of shamanic practice: drug-induced visions, progressive levels of skill at hunting, mystical bodyless flights, and rituals to gain the help of spirits. However, the tells are there! Castaneda's writings do not reveal understanding of the place of shamanism in the history of religion.

I may have more first-hand experience of shamans than Castanedo. I have sat through shamanic cleansing rituals in sweat lodges, and I conducted a year-long correspondence with a Umani Lenape shaman who I invited to speak to my World Religions students. I am not a nay-sayer when it comes to the realness of their occult powers. It is seductive. 

My intention is to clarify the distinction between the offices of shaman and priest, the oldest known religious offices. Both serve as intermediaries between their communities and the supernatural. They share some common symbols such as the Tree of Life, serpent symbolism, and the Sun as the emblem of the High God. However, they represent different worldviews, different ways of reasoning, and different practices.

Underlying shamanism is the belief that there are powerful spirits who cause imbalance and disharmony in the world. The shaman’s role is to determine which spirits are at work in a given situation and to find ways to appease the spirits and restore balance or harmony. This often involves use of psychoactive substances to induce a trance state. Rarely, does the shaman perform blood sacrifice. The hides used to make their drums come from animals that have been hunted for food.

Underlying the priesthood is belief in a supreme High God to whom humans must give an accounting, especially for the shedding of blood. The ancient laws and received traditions governing priestly ceremonies, sacrifices, cleansing and healing rituals clarify the role of the priest as one who offers sacrifice for the people according to sacred law.

In the priest's understanding, the High God holds the world in balance, and it is human actions that cause disharmony. Offending spirits (demons) contribute to the chaos. Therefore, priests are to discern or test the spirits, recognizing that evil spirits can masquerade as beneficent. In my experiences with shamans, I noted that they also recognize that the spirits sometimes lie. They have their own ways of testing the spirits. (Only one Spirit never lies.)

Shamans can be found among many populations around the world: Africa, Asia, Australia, and the Americas. They tend to serve small tribal communities or nomadic clans, whereas priests historically serve at shrines and temples under the authority of high kings and rulers. Another difference is the gender-transgressive (cross-dressing, transvestite) practice that occurs with shamanism. However, transvestism was prohibited among the Hebrew ruler-priest caste, the oldest known order of priests.

Related reading: Hallucinogenic Substances Found in 3000-year Hair of Shaman; Males as Spiritual Leaders: Two Patterns; Female Shamans; Belief in the High God; The Oldest Known Religion

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