Did Carlos Castaneda's "Tales of Power" Really Happen?

Castaneda in 1962
Castaneda in 1962
photo-enhanced desert
photo-enhanced desert
Sonoran Desert
Sonoran Desert

Castaneda's books were a hit with the Counterculture of the 1960s and '70s


As the story goes, Carlos Castaneda, an anthropologist from UCLA, ventured into the desert of northern Mexico in the 1960s and returned with some hair-raising tales about a Yaqui sorcerer or diablero named Don Juan Matus, who performed mind-boggling supernatural feats, such as morphing into a crow and then flying like one!

Over time, Castaneda became Don Juan’s apprentice, eventually marshalling his own power over the forces of nature. These stories - compiled in 12 books, the first published in 1968 - were truly astonishing because Castaneda insisted they were factual recollections of his many strange, shamanic experiences in Mexico. But were these chronicles nothing more than the product of an overactive imagination?

Only Castaneda knows for certain, and he’s no longer with us.

Nevertheless, I was captivated by Castaneda’s books, because they resonated with the Counterculture ethos of the time, which emphasized esoteric teachings, alternative lifestyles, rebellion against authority, Eastern religion and the altered states of consciousness possible with the ingestion of psychedelic substances such as LSD.

Man, Castaneda’s stories were trippy, ya know? I recall thinking: Of course somebody can turn into a crow! With the right knowledge and training, any one of us could!

Castaneda disappeared from public view in 1973, about the time an article in Time magazine described him as “an enigma wrapped in a mystery.” Also at this time Castaneda began living with three so-called witches in a large house in Los Angeles. Purportedly, these witches had also been apprentices of the decidedly mysterious Don Juan Matus.

Castaneda returned to public view in the middle 1990s, when he promoted Tensegrity, a Toltec regimen of spiritual exercises. Those three aforementioned witches came along as well, lecturing and giving radio interviews about Tensegrity. By that time, I didn’t pay much attention to Carlos Castaneda. The times had changed, and so had I, and I had heard that his “tales of power,” as I now refer to them (a phrase that is also the title to one of his books), were works of fiction at best or, at worst, an outright fraud. Still, I considered them a good read, and I certainly didn’t regret that I had read most of his books.

Let's take a closer look at Carlos Castaneda.

Carlos Castaneda was born in Peru in 1925 and immigrated to the United States in the early 1950s, becoming a U.S. citizen in 1957 or 1959, depending on sources. In the 1960s to the early 1970s, while a student at the University of California at Los Angeles, Castaneda wrote three books about his experiences in northern Mexico: The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge (1968), A Separate Reality (1971) and Journey to Ixtlan (1972). Based on the notes in his research log, these books were the basis of his degrees (B.A. 1962 and Ph.D. 1973) at UCLA.

While under the tutelage of Don Juan and another spiritual “teacher,” if you will, by the name of Don Genaro, Castaneda learns the Mastery of Awareness, the Mastery of Stalking and the Mastery of Intent. At first, Don Juan forces Castaneda to take various psychotropic substances such as peyote (mescaline), datura (Jimsonweed) and mushrooms (Psilocybe mexicana) – or power plants as they were called - in order to shake his fixation on reality, thereby opening the doorway to a state known as nonordinary reality. The object is for Castaneda to become a warrior-traveler who can protect himself in clashes with hostile entities, as well as other sorcerers or brujos (warlocks) who might wish to steal his power or even kill him.

But Castaneda eventually realizes that he no longer needs to ingest these drugs once he learns how to shift his attention to nonordinary reality, known as “stopping the world” in order to perceive the world as it really is, not as he thinks it is. Don Juan also shows Castaneda the so-called gait of power, with which Castaneda learns to protect himself from malevolent spiritual entities.

Castaneda’s early books are filled with passages when Don Juan and/or Don Genaro amuse themselves by shapeshifting into fearsome creatures and/or perform seemingly impossible acrobatic movements - as Castaneda gapes at them, awestruck. Then, invariably, they guffaw at Castaneda, having a grand time at his expense. Don Genaro, in particular, is a trickster (coyote), who often imitates Castaneda and teases him almost constantly.

Don Juan also tells Castaneda about the existence of the tonal and nagual. Simply put, the tonal is everything, and the nagual is everything else! The following is a passage from The Eagle’s Gift (1981):

Don Juan had told us that the human beings are divided in two. The right side, which he called the tonal, encompasses everything the intellect can conceive of. The left side, called the nagual, is a realm of indescribable features: a realm impossible to contain in words. The left side is perhaps comprehended, if comprehension is what takes place, with the total body; there its resistance to conceptualization.

Numerous passages from Castaneda’s books tell of his encounters with the forces, entities and creatures of the Sonoran Desert, a truly fascinating place of hidden allure and dangers of almost unimaginable proportions. Always the willing subject, Castaneda faces these challenges as a man of great courage and manifests his terror in a most engaging literary fashion. Castaneda was so good at describing his terror!


At the end of Castaneda’s fourth book, Tales of Power, Carlos jumps from a precipice - presumably not killing himself in the act - signifying his emergence into the world as a Man of Knowledge in the ilk of Don Juan and Don Genaro. Many people thought this passage would mark the end of the series, but Castaneda kept cranking out books, 12 in all.

Then Carlos Castaneda died of liver cancer in April of 1998.


As far as I’ve been able to ascertain, Carlos Castaneda never said or wrote that his books were anything less than factual accounts of the events described within them, but there are certainly a number of people who think he was not telling the truth.

The first analytical criticism of Castaneda’s books came in 1976 with the publication of Richard de Mille’s book, The Power and the Allegory, in which he wrote:

Logical or chronological errors in the narrative constitute the best evidence that Castaneda's books are works of fiction. If no one has discovered these errors before, the reason must be that no one has listed the events of the first three books in sequence. Once that has been done, the errors are unmistakable.

Then, more recently in 2003, Richard J. Wallis published Shamans/Neo-Shamans: Contested Ecstasies, Alternative Archaeologies, and Contemporary Pagans. In this book, Wallis wrote:

Beneath the veneer of anthropological fact stood huge discrepancies in the data: the books ‘contradict one another in details of time, location, sequence, and description of events. There are possible published sources for almost everything Carlos wrote.


Wallis concluded:

There is no corroboration beyond Castaneda's writings that Don Juan did what he is said to have done, and very little that he exists at all.

As far I can tell, nobody ever met Don Juan or Don Genaro or any other character introduced in Castaneda’s books. I recall hearing that some hippies went to Mexico looking for Don Juan, but they never reported finding him.

So, truth or fiction, are the books of Carlos Castaneda worth reading? At the very least, Castaneda certainly had the academic credentials to write an impressive series of books; his knowledge of Mexican folklore, Native American shamanism, anthropology and the occult seemed boundless. Castaneda certainly had the literary ability as well, pumping out page-turning thrillers that certainly had the emotionality and appearance of truth.

In the end, whether Castaneda’s stories are based on factual accounts is up to the individual to decide. My friends (Castaneda enthusiasts as well) and I used to say that it hardly matters if Castaneda’s books are based on true events, because his “journey” is what really counts.

At any rate, I’ve always thought that a good story is a good story, no matter what. Pick up the first book in the series and see if you like it. Then you might soon feel the inescapable urge to travel to the desert of northern Mexico, hoping to encounter a spiritual entity or two.

Susan Sontag: “The truth is always something that is told, not something that is known. If there were no speaking or writing, there would be no truth about anything. There would only be what is.”


Aldous Huxley: “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you mad.”

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Comments 22 comments

Mike Lickteig profile image

Mike Lickteig 6 years ago from Lawrence KS USA

Between Richard De Mille's books and another book by Castaneda's wife Margaret, it has been pretty much decided that Carlos' field work actually took place in the library. Don Juan's teachings mirrored a host of other schools of thought about the nature of existence, and whatever his philosophies represented, it was certainly not a Yaqui way of knowledge. Don Juan himself changed from a serious instrucotr in the first book to a jokester in the third, asking Carlos in an early encounter if he was "playing with his wanger."

Castaneda received support for the validity of his work throughout his life. The faculty at UCLA was never willing to admit they awarded an advanced degree based upon a work of fiction. They probably couldn't fathom why someone would find it easier to get a degree in anthropology by writing three best-sellers than to earn a degree in the ordinary way.

Nevertheless, I loved Castaneda's books and collected them all. I even underlined some of them when I was a teenager. They were powerful, mysterious and majestic. Carlos could spin a tale, if nothing else. Do I believe his books were real? No. They certainly would be required reading in the anthropology department of any university of they were factual. They are worthwhile stories and a thoughtful read. His books, as you suggest, represent the times well. They were interesting and fun.

Mike


Kosmo profile image

Kosmo 6 years ago from California Author

Thanks very much for your insightful comment, Mike! Castaneda's books were indeed lots of fun to read. And you're right, they almost certainly are not factual accounts of his adventures in Mexico. (You may notice that I omitted the word Yaqui, because Don Juan almost certainly wasn't one of them.) Anyway, it's hard to figure how he could have presented them as true all those years without feeling like a fraud. Later!


Tkumah profile image

Tkumah 6 years ago

I agree that he was a great story teller but he also did not like society.

It is not about facts or fiction, it is about understanding what he is talking about. I would filter some of his ideas as personal, some real life and some, a creative expression of knowledge.

He is fun to read and makes one wonder, especially 20 years ago.

His work is brilliant. To be a shaman is a way of life. He definitely lived that kind of a life.

Very informative hub and well done:)


Gerg profile image

Gerg 6 years ago from California

Interesting read on a colorful character - thanks for illuminating his story here, Kosmo.

G


Kosmo profile image

Kosmo 6 years ago from California Author

Thanks very much for the comment, Tkumah. Castaneda's books were fascinating reading when they came out decades ago, but I wonder if the younger crowd would be as fascinated. Nevertheless, for certain academic types and enthusiasts, they should be required reading. Later!


Kosmo profile image

Kosmo 6 years ago from California Author

Thanks for the comment, Greg. I always look forward to hearing from fellow Sacramentans! Later!


Manuel Ulloa profile image

Manuel Ulloa 6 years ago from Australia

Well great piece of work,and research that only need the praxis of shamans to agreed on its existence.

All is about energy to see from your ayes's flesh its imposible you have to create other ayes that can see at the level on such bibration.

I have enjoyed it.


Kosmo profile image

Kosmo 6 years ago from California Author

Thanks for the comment, Manuel Ulboa. I'll check out your story about Castaneda. Later!


Joyus Crynoid profile image

Joyus Crynoid 6 years ago from Eden

I loved reading Castaneda years ago. It's like the bible (or any other 'holy' text): whether or not such stories are accounts of literal truth (probably not), much of what they say about human existence rings true.


HubCrafter profile image

HubCrafter 6 years ago from Arizona

I'm not sure if Castenada's work was the first to open the door for New Age Books.

But there might be a case made that this was a dark time for publishers. And part of their desperate search for best sellers led some to promote and publish fiction in the guise of fact.

Shirley Maclaine's (sp?)books come to mind. As well, this is the period when the alien abduction book by the psycho-hypnotist came out too.

Speculating on the unknown as drama and reality continues... with books about ghosts, psychic phenomena; celebrities who lend their fame to other authors' rambling about possible this and maybe that's...speculation is the name and money is the game today...all these years later.


Kosmo profile image

Kosmo 6 years ago from California Author

Don't forget the Seth books! You make a good point, HubCrafter, but I'm not sure matters in the publishing world have changed all that much. Great bullshitters will always be in demand. A good example is the "Celestine Prophecy" by James Redfield. Give-me-a-break. Later!


Eva 6 years ago

I'll give a word for the younger generation. We surely are amazed the same but a bit more critical, I would say. It's nice to believe that at least partially what he writes is true.

Nevertheless, I find valuable the philosophy which lies beneath it and not the actual story itself


kittythedreamer profile image

kittythedreamer 5 years ago from the Ether

my co-worker gave me the book journey to ixtlan and i found it absolutely extraordinary. carlos communication with the coyote is the scene that really sticks out in my memory of the book...and the "evil" witch lady that supposedly is after carlos...sort of like his archnemesis that he has to face. good book..i never read the others as my co-worker claims they got REALLY strange.


Kosmo profile image

Kosmo 5 years ago from California Author

Hey, kittythedreamer, if you liked "Journey to Ixtlan," you should read the others too. The weirdness continues, but isn't that what you want? You're just getting started, babe. Later!


ruffridyer 5 years ago from Dayton, ohio

If I dropped acid, smoked jimson, ate shroons I would likely see men turn into crows and fly away too.

Carlo isn't that hard to figure out.


Kosmo profile image

Kosmo 5 years ago from California Author

Wow, I can't believe you smoked Jimson weed! Anybody who did that must have flown like a crow all the way to the moon and back. Later!


markhigham profile image

markhigham 4 years ago from Phnom Penh, Cambodia

I'm not so sure we should be overly concerned with the fact/fiction element in Castaneda. We should, almost have to, understand him as a mystic. When his dissertation passed at UCLA, a lot of academics immediately thought that UCLA's reputation had almost instantly been ruined. But mystics being very comfortable with such things as paradox, contradictions, and ineffability, make their writing by default very difficult to understand. Mystics hate words. And they also spend their lives suffering, perhaps a kind of holy suffering, with only partial moments of contact with divine energy. They are confusing and confused about themselves Castaneda is writing in symbols as all mystics do, thus when we encounter "characters," we have to understand that there is a higher existence in which they live in. In this existence they are indeed "real." We can expect them to have an actuality. Even Bertrand Russell thinks this if you refer to his Logical Atomism. So, the real thing worth focusing when reading Castaneda is to use the confusion to plumb the plot lines. And it is in this ultimate ambiguity with all of the terrors of never being able to know anything about anything that makes Castaneda into perhaps one of the greatest spiritual sensitives of all time and I absolutely don't believe he was a charlatan. The mysteries and ambiguities are there like Zen Koans to shift understanding as we wait for that entrance into Nirvana, yet another symbol.


Kosmo profile image

Kosmo 4 years ago from California Author

Hey, markhigham, I think you're the first person I've encountered who suggested that Castaneda was a mystic. Perhaps he was, perhaps he wasn't. But he was definitely a great teller of stories - factual or otherwise. Later!


just helen profile image

just helen 3 years ago from Dartmoor UK

Just stumbled across this hub as I have recently picked up The Fire From Within. I read his previous books a few years ago then stopped. The Fire From Within wasn't right for me then, but it is now! I can see parallels with Buddhism and Gnosticism - when don Juan talks of self importance he's talking about the ego, in my view.

Recently a petty tyrant came into my life and she has changed me so much for the good that I am grateful for her. Nothing she can do can drag me down. I just life in the face of her bullying and sarcasm. She literally cannot touch me. As a result I have grown as a warrior, or taken a further step towards Enlightenment, however you wish to put it.

I agree Castaneda was a mystic. His stories are parables which you can only hear if you have ears to hear (where have I heard that before?!).


just helen profile image

just helen 3 years ago from Dartmoor UK

Sorry, meant 'laugh' not 'life' in the paragraph about the petty tyrant! Sorry!


Kosmo profile image

Kosmo 3 years ago from California Author

Thanks for the comment, just helen. Castenada's books certainly are worth reading and studying, even though they're more speculation, commentary and theory than reality. Later!


just helen profile image

just helen 3 years ago from Dartmoor UK

My feeling is that they are allegorical in the same way that the bible is. The stories cannot be taken literally, but the message can be applied to your life if you have ears to hear...

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