Authors: Carlos Castaneda

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Peruvian-born American anthropologist

Identity: Peruvian American

Author Works


The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge, 1968

A Separate Reality: Further Conversations with Don Juan, 1971

Journey to Ixtlan: The Lessons of Don Juan, 1972

Tales of Power, 1974

The Second Ring of Power, 1977

The Eagle’s Gift, 1981

The Fire from Within, 1984

The Power of Silence: Further Lessons of Don Juan, 1987

The Art of Dreaming, 1993

The Active Side of Infinity, 1998

Magical Passes: The Practical Wisdom of the Shamans of Ancient Mexico, 1998

The Wheel of Time: The Shamans of Ancient Mexico, Their Thoughts About Life, Death, and the Universe, 1998


Carlos César Arana Castaneda (kahs-tahn-NAY-dah) is a controversial anthropologist whose novelistic writings have attracted a large following. He claims to have been born in São Paulo, Brazil, on December 25, 1935. Some reference works concur with this place of birth but list December 25, 1931, as the date. Castaneda claims that he was born into a prominent Italian family of another name, that his mother died when he was a child, and that his father was a professor of literature. According to his story, he legally took the name Castaneda in 1959. Yet United States immigration records indicate that he was born in Cajamarca, Peru, on December 25, 1925, the son of César Arana Burungaray, a goldsmith, and Susan Castaneda Nova. According to these records, he was using the name Castaneda as early as 1951. When confronted with these discrepancies, Castaneda dismissed them as inconsequential.{$I[AN]9810001249}{$I[A]Castaneda, Carlos}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Castaneda, Carlos}{$I[geo]PERU;Castaneda, Carlos}{$I[geo]LATINO;Castaneda, Carlos}{$I[tim]1925;Castaneda, Carlos}

Castaneda graduated from the Colegio Nacional de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe and later studied painting and sculpture at the National School of Fine Arts in Lima. In 1951, he immigrated to Los Angeles, California. He initially studied psychology at Los Angeles City College between 1955 and 1959. In the latter year, he became a student at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), where he received a B.A. in anthropology in 1962. He studied intermittently at UCLA over the next nine years, earning an M.A. in 1964 and a Ph.D. in 1970. While a student, Castaneda spent five years in Mexico, apprenticed to a Yaqui sorcerer. It was his account of this apprenticeship that would bring him literary celebrity.

Castaneda’s field of graduate study was ethnomethodology, and as early as 1960 he had set out to study the ritual use of medicinal and psychotropic plants by American Indians in the southwestern United States. In the summer of that year, he met Don Juan Matus, an aged member of the Yaqui tribe, who was reputed to have extraordinary powers. First in Arizona and later in Sonora, Mexico, Don Juan initiated Castaneda into the ritual use of peyote and other hallucinogens. By the autumn of 1965, Castaneda had almost come to regard the visionary states shared with the old Indian as an alternate reality, one totally at odds with the rationalistic Western tradition. Castaneda turned the notes he had taken during his apprenticeship into a master’s thesis. In 1968, the University of California Press published the work under the title The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge. The modest run of two thousand copies excited great interest. The book was reissued as a paperback and immediately became a best-seller. It was taken up by the antiestablishment counterculture, which viewed Don Juan as a folk hero and Castaneda as his amanuensis.

Also in 1968, Castaneda returned to Mexico to show Don Juan the book in which he was the central character. There, Castaneda had more experiences that defied his scientific rationalism. The result was A Separate Reality: Further Conversations with Don Juan. Other books followed in rapid succession: Journey to Ixtlan, an account of nonpsychedelic-related exercises practiced during the author’s apprenticeship, and Tales of Power, which recounts further and even more extravagant experiences with Don Juan, now joined by another sorcerer, Don Genaro. Castaneda’s doctoral dissertation was essentially the text of Journey to Ixtlan. The Second Ring of Power, which tells of Castaneda’s encounter with Don Juan’s female disciples, was received with mixed reviews.

Canstaneda’s earlier writings are linear in their narrative and temporal structure. In later books, such as The Eagle’s Gift, The Fire from Within, The Power of Silence, and The Art of Dreaming, he presents the reader with the process of remembering the events that occurred in the multilayered and multidimensional time he spent with Don Juan. He also confronts the memory of Don Juan and his party moving beyond death and journeying into infinity with their awareness intact.

The system of knowledge that Castaneda learned from Don Juan proposes that, by making a minute account of their lives through a practice called “recapitulation,” people can acquire the necessary energy to challenge the objective existence of this world. An essential step in the process of gaining energy involves eradicating the ego and self-importance. As a practitioner of this system of knowledge, Castaneda did not defend himself or his works from criticism.

Castaneda’s subject matter and personality made him a controversial figure. Despite his defenders within the academic community, when Castaneda received his Ph.D. in anthropology, the more staid members of the profession reacted as if the University of California had granted a doctorate in magic. After becoming famous, Castaneda gave interviews in which his date and place of birth, his parents’ names, and the entire history of his childhood conflicted with the official record. Even the date of his Ph.D. ranges from 1970 to 1973 in contemporary reference works. Castaneda maintained that Don Juan had marked him with the responsibility to succeed him as a guide for others in their quest for knowledge. Some critics implied that, because no one except Castaneda had actually seen Don Juan, the books might be largely works of imagination. (More recently, two of Castaneda’s colleagues and fellow apprentices of Don Juan, Florinda Donner-Grau and Taisha Abelar, published narratives recounting their apprenticeships with Don Juan from a female viewpoint.) Nevertheless, some critics were of the opinion that Castaneda was essentially a gifted novelist and that the literal truth of his accounts was not a crucial factor.

Castaneda attempted to teach at the University of California at Irvine but discovered that he was too much of a celebrity to lecture effectively there. He subsequently led a rather reclusive life, working with a few of his students to present and elucidate the principles of “Tensegrity.” The discipline of Tensegrity, based on specialized physical movements that were discovered by the shamans who founded Don Juan’s system of knowledge, purportedly enable the practitioner to gather sufficient energy or impetus to navigate into other worlds. Castaneda died near UCLA in Westwood (a part of Los Angeles), on April 27, 1998.

Castaneda’s books have sold in the millions and have been translated into several languages. Their gripping narrative and descriptive power and the beguiling and awesome alternatives that they present to ordinary existence have contributed to their popularity. As F. Scott Fitzgerald became the spokesperson for the Jazz Age, Castaneda caught the spirit (or one major part of the spirit) of the turbulent 1960’s and 1970’s and of the New Age movement that emerged from these years: a radical questioning of the values of American life, even of the American perception of reality.

BibliographyDe Mille, Richard. Castaneda’s Journey: The Power and the Allegory. Rev. ed. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Capra Press, 1978. Paints Castaneda as a brilliant scholar who created controversies out of boredom.Keen, Sam. Voices and Visions. New York: Harper & Row, 1974. A collection of essays that reveal Castaneda’s personal history and which label his Don Juan experiences a hoax. Thirty scholars and laypersons celebrate or deplore his influence on academic disciplines and private lives.Sánchez, Víctor. The Teachings of Don Carlos: Practical Applications of the Works of Carlos Castaneda. Translated by Robert Nelson. Santa Fe, N.Mex.: Bear, 1995. Provides a method for applying the shamanic wisdom described in Castaneda’s books.Williams, Donald Lee. Border Crossings: A Psychological Perspective on Carlos Castaneda’s Path of Knowledge. Toronto: Inner City Books, 1981. Williams incorporates elements of Jungian psychology, mythology, and comparative religion to portray Castaneda’s experiences in a more metaphorical light.
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