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Carlos Castañeda

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Carlos César Salvador Arana Castañeda (1925–1998) was a popular author and hoaxer influential in the psychedelic drug culture of the 1960s and 1970s. He wrote a series of books, starting with The Teachings of Don Juan, in which he purports to describe the teachings of "Don Juan Matus", a YaquiWikipedia Native American from Mexico and a traditional nagual,Wikipedia a shape-shifting magician. Don Juan allegedly initiated Castañeda into a Yaqui tradition of drug-fueled mysticism. Time magazine has called him the "Godfather of the New Age".

On the strength of these revelations, Castañeda was awarded a doctorate in anthropology by UCLA. Unusually, his doctorate was awarded based on the first three books (A Separate Reality, Journey to Ixtlan and Tales of Power) that he had published while he was a student, rather than based on defending a thesis as most doctoral candidates would do.[1] Anthropologists demanded that the university revoke his degree; they refused.[2] His entire body of work, including his thesis, is now generally considered to be a hoax. Apologists these days put his works forward as "fiction", which they weren't sold as at the time.

The Teachings of Don Juan[edit]

A number of psychoactive substances were the key to Don Juan's supposed teachings. Peyote, a cactus (Lophophora williamsii) was the principal drug that he ingested; it is a hallucinogenWikipedia whose active ingredient is mescaline,Wikipedia although ingesting it in cactus form also induces strong vomiting. He also vaporized a smoking mixture called humito or "little smoke" which contained magic mushrooms (Psilocybe mexicanaWikipedia). Another drug used by Castañeda was Datura,Wikipedia commonly known as jimsonweed, a much more dangerous deliriant.Wikipedia The books narrated that Don Juan and Castañeda, under the influence of these drugs, were able to travel great distances, move objects with their minds, and transform themselves into animals. This tradition of magic was said to derive from lore handed down from the ToltecsWikipedia, an ancient Mexican people who preceded the Aztecs and whose culture died out around 1000 CE.

Under the influence of these drugs, Castañeda learned a number of platitudes, which have gone on to great currency in the New Age movement and probably seem quite profound if you're high:

For me there is only the traveling on paths that have heart, on any path that may have heart, and the only worthwhile challenge is to traverse its full length — and there I travel looking, looking breathlessly.
The Teachings of Don Juan (1968)
We are men and our lot in life is to learn and to be hurled into inconceivable new worlds.
A Separate Reality (1971)
Nobody knows who I am or what I do. Not even I.
—Don Juan Matus, quoted in Journey to Ixtlan (1972)

These and many similar and quotable sayings in Castañeda's books, especially these first three, were widely quoted as inspirational material among early New Agers and drug culture aficionados of the 1970s.


Castañeda's accounts began to be widely doubted during his career. The author Joyce Carol Oates wrote to The New York Times, expressing bewilderment that a reviewer had accepted Castañeda's narrative as fact. Weston LaBarre,Wikipedia a genuine authority on peyote cultures, dismissed Castañeda's account immediately and forcefully,[3] Richard de Mille,Wikipedia a former Scientologist and psychologist, published Castañeda's Journey: The Power and the Allegory[4] A further debunking appears in Jay Courtney Fikes' Carlos Castañeda: Academic Opportunism and the Psychedelic Sixties.[5]

The chronology of Castañeda's alleged adventures in Sonora with Don Juan was internally inconsistent. They contain no reference to the usual dangers, discomforts, and precautions needed for people wandering the Sonoran desert. No reference to actual contemporary Yaqui beliefs and culture appear in Castañeda's accounts: neither their deep Roman Catholic piety, nor their extensive use of flowers, nor their traditional suspicion of the Mexican government. Don Juan does not resemble a Yaqui or inhabit a Yaqui culture in any identifiable way.[note 1] Castañeda apparently went through his training in shamanism without learning any Yaqui words for animals or plants he allegedly encountered. Don Juan's philosophical platitudes were cribbed from a number of identifiable sources, including Ludwig Wittgenstein and C.S. Lewis, the quantity of such plagiaristic elements is so large as to make the originality of "Don Juan" quite implausible. Richard De Mille's book, The Don Juan Papers: Further Castaneda Controversies, has a 47-page "Alleglossary" describing them.[6]:390-436

The Yaquis traditionally don't use peyote, although some have taken up peyote religions. Another native tribe of Mexico, the Huichols,Wikipedia do. Castañeda's books persuaded American stoners to visit Mexico. First, they invaded the Yaqui, whose sober culture disappointed them. Then they turned to the peyote-using Huichol, where they caused substantial disruption, and a tribal elder was murdered by a stoned gringo.[1]

Castañeda is no longer regarded as anything other than a fraud by contemporary anthropologists. Dr. William W. Kelley, chair of Yale's anthropology department, has said,[1]

I doubt you'll find an anthropologist of my generation who regards Castañeda as anything but a clever con man. It was a hoax, and surely Don Juan never existed as anything like the figure of his books.

Castañeda disappeared from the public eye in 1973, but continued to publish books containing the alleged teachings of Don Juan until his death. He promoted a philosophy called "Tensegrity",[note 2] supposedly based on Don Juan's teachings, and established a foundation called "Cleargreen" to promote it.

Cult Leader[edit]

After falling out of the public eye, Castañeda started a secretive group, ordering initiates to abandon their families and giving them new names. Several vanished after his death, one turned up dead, and they are suspected of having committed suicide.[1]

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. The Yaqui of history had an excellent relationship with the Jesuits. They lived on the outer boundaries of the Spanish empire, on land that had neither gold nor silver, nor was suitable for intensive hacienda agriculture, and as such were spared the worst excesses of Spanish colonial rule. They became devout Catholics, deeply conservative, and preserved much of their traditional culture and language. This conservatism served them poorly when the republican Mexicans overthrew the French-imposed emperor Maximilian, and the Yaqui fought on the losing side, leading to a long-lasting conflict with the regime of dictator Porfirio Diaz. These people were quite simply unlikely candidates for an occult tradition of drug-fueled witchcraft.
  2. Tensegrity was apparently ripped off from Buckminster Fuller's geometrical/architectural concept of the same name.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Marshall, Robert. (Apr. 12, 2007). The dark legacy of Carlos Castañeda, Salon.
  2. Martin Gardner, Did Adam and Eve Have Navels?: Debunking Pseudoscience (2001: Norton; ISBN 0393245039), p. 164.
  3. "Carlos Castañeda Meets Madame Solitude" by Robert Bly (January 22, 1978) The New York Times.
  4. Capra, 1976; ISBN 0884960676.
  5. Millenia, 1993; ISBN 0969696000
  6. The Don Juan Papers: Further Castaneda Controversies by Richard De Mille (1980) Ross-Erikson Publishers. ISBN 0915520249.