P.1: From Mircea Eliade to Carlos Castaneda

One of the first signs of our fascination with all things 'shamanic' in the second half of the twentieth century, is Mircea Eliade ‘s 1964 “Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy”. Some scholars and most neo-Shamanic practitioners uncritically accept Eliade's stance without question. This master scholar, the most significant precursor to the New Shamanism, really its forefather, was Mircea Eliade. Few researchers have evaluated the man or critiqued the book, but a growing numbers of critics are placing Eliade and his approach to the history of religions in context, specifically his armchair anthropology and the impact of a literary imagination on his supposedly factual work.

Weighing both views, we can properly see both Eliade's exceptional, creative view of shamanisms and his biased peculiarity. One of Eliade's driving forces - cultural evolution - was a major trend in shamanism studies and has since been reified by neo-Shamans. His aim was to locate 'shamanism' within the history of religion, a quest that went hand in hand with attempting an etymological derivation for the term.

The misguided idea, in my view, of a primal Indo-European shamanism based on the 'original' Siberian model has resulted, alongside the hailing of a singular shamanism as the oldest of all religions, even the proto-form of many established religions. While such speculations are intriguing, their basis, along with etymological forays, largely derives from outmoded evolutionary frameworks and culture-historic approaches. These have of course been proven inappropriate because of their Eurocentric and racist use of primitivism vis-a-vis civilisation, with an erroneous emphasis on innatist progress. The commanding impact of Eliade as a religious evolutionist has reified such misnomers. Eliade and other researchers also distinguish between black or primitive and white or pure shamans, and authentic and inauthentic forms of possession. These classifications have ethnographic precedents, in Central Asia for example, but such examples are more subtle and nuanced than Western binary distinctions between I good' and 'evil'. Eliade's approach was heavily influenced by his Christian beliefs. During his work on Shamanism Eliade produced a novel, The Forbidden Forest, in which one finds the consistent theme of, and focus on, notions of I upward flights' and celestial vistas. Eliade's Christianity, with its focus on ascension to heaven, influenced this Shamanovel. Literary criticism aside, Eliade's relationship with Christianity and obsession with celestial ascent also affected his factual writing on shamanisms. In Shamanism, one finds consistent favourable referral to shamanic ascent to upper worlds to the negative discussion and exclusion of descent to lower worlds. There are roughly double the references to ascent than descent, a count reflecting not the preponderance of shamanic ascent cross-culturally, but Eliade's personal bias. Elsewhere, he uses the words infernal' and demons when describing lower shamanic worlds, but spirits and supreme beings to address upper worldly entities, concepts clearly dictated by a Christian world-view. (See D.C. Noel, The Soul of Shamanism: Western Fantasies, Imaginal Realities, 1997.) It seems Eliade was either purposefully or subconsciously searching for what he perceived to be the most fitting in shamanism' to reflect aspects of Christianity.Indeed, this Christian perspective influenced other aspects of Eliade's research on shamanisms. Within the history of religion, Eliade's aim was clearly to elucidate the earliest religious form. This quest for archaic ontology could be criticised, for its primitivism according to which tribal peoples are perceived by the West to have inherited the simplest and therefore most archaic forms of religion. To Eliade, this religion was 'shamanism'. 

He also distinguished a true or archaic shamanism as distinct from spirit possession, which was seen as being more corrupt, historically more recent, and subject to decline, degeneration and 'decadence' (Eliade Recent Works on Shamanism. History of Religions 1, 1961: 155), hence Eliade's motivation for the subtitle 'archaic techniques of ecstasy'. Rather than showing shamanisms to be backward, as previous researchers had erroneously done, Eliade perceived shamanism as the true, 'paradisal', Endemic religion in which a Supreme Being reigned: during ecstasy the shaman 'recovers the situation as it was at the beginning land] re-establishe[s] the "paradisal" situation lost at the dawn of time' (Eliade, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, 1964: 99). Eliade's implicit agenda was to search for examples of celestial ascent, a Supreme Being and comparable themes in shamanisms and 'primitive' religion, to authenticate his belief that all shamanistic religions displayed a global Ur-Christianity.

Seeing Shamanism in terms of this religious and political manifesto sheds new light on how and why Eliade represented shamanisms in the way he did. This theme of attempting to redirect spiritually impoverished Westerners also influenced Joseph Campbell's quest for perceived primitive Christianities, clearly indicating how Western notions and impositions of supreme deity and Endemic religions have permeated studies on shamanisms . But followers and critics do consider Eliade a remarkable scholar, and his his attempting an integrated humanistic endeavour in some respects anticipates current trans-disciplinary efforts in academia.



The in 1968 “Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge” by Carlos Castaneda became an instant best-seller for the University of California Press, and the same work was submitted as a Master's dissertation. Its main themes surround use of entheogenic plants to gain supernatural power and knowledge, a subject wonderfully timed for consumption in the psychedelic 1960s.

A Separate Reality: Further Conversations with Don Juan (1971) charted Carlos's continued shamanic training between 1968 and 1970. With journey to Ixtlan (1972), the third book, Carlos received a PhD; it describes how shamanic 'alternate reality' can also be accessed without the use of entheogens, again nicely timed for a post-psychedelic audience. The relationship between Carlos and Don Juan continues in Tales of Power (1974), and the many shamanic experiences he describes now become repetitive. Perhaps, at first, Castaneda was not set on a money-spinner, but by the fourth book this seems to have been. The authenticity of Don Juan was accepted for six years, until Richard de Mille and Daniel Noel both published their critical exposes of the Don Juan books in 1976 (De Mille produced a further edited volume in 1980).

Most anthropologists had been convinced of Castaneda's authenticity until now indeed, they had had little reason to question it - but De Mille's meticulous analysis, in particular, debunked Castaneda's work. 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. In addition to these inconsistencies, various authors suggest aspects of the Sonoran desert Carlos describes are environmentally implausible, and, the Yaqui shamanism he divulges is not Yaqui at all but a synthesis of shamanisms from elsewhere. The controversy does not end here.

Castaneda's estranged wife wrote in detail about how Carlos was hardly new to shamanisms when he 'met' Don Juan. Like other seekers of his generation he had been influenced and inspired by alternative spiritual thinkers and psychedelic explorers, particularly Aldous Huxley and Timothy Leary. It Is also interesting to note the academic politics of the time. Awarding Castaneda a PhD was encouraged by the phenomenologist Professor Garfinkel, whose belief in reality as social construction convinced the critics that Castaneda's alternate reality vis a-vis ethnographic actuality should be academically acceptable. Since, Huichol shamans have been commercialised for neo-Sharnanic consumption for example by Brant Secunda, who presented their practices as an unchanged and pristine form of shamanism; hardly scrupulous ethnography. Further intrigue surrounds Castaneda when he was not forthcoming in addressing the accusations of fakery as they emerged, and there is little to merit belief in Castaneda's work as anthropological 'fact'. He neglected to produce field notes on request, eventually claiming they were destroyed in a basement flood. When he did respond to the critics, Carlos was mysterious and elusive. Part of the problem in accepting Castaneda's work, then, is that it is hard to accept Castaneda himself. Indeed, which Carlos?

There are multiple versions of where Castaneda was born, who his father was and the rudiments of his life story up to entrance into UCLA, most of them peddled at one time or another by Carlos himself. He even disputed his marriage to Margaret Runyan Castaneda and the fathering of her child. Carlos revelled in enigma and enjoyed confusing people as he attempted to 'stop the world' (an idea possible deriving from Gurdjieff) shamanically. Carlos almost invited people to expose him, and that, rather than destroying him, gave his work ever greater publicity and mystery. Michael Harner however told Richard de Mille that Carlos's work is '110 per cent valid since it conveys a deep truth.

The danger of universalising shamanisms and devaluing the individual experiences of indigenous shamans, alongside the under-cutting of their truth by a fake shaman, is clear. De Mille adds that it is Castaneda's methodology, and the alternate shamanistic reality he presents, that we are asked to believe, rather than the ethnographic 'facts' themselves, which are certainly fictitious: Castaneda wasn't a common con man, he lied to bring us the truth. His stories are packed with truth, though they are not true stories, which he says they are. This is not your familiar literary allegorist painlessly instructing his readers in philosophy. Nor is it your fearless trustworthy ethnographer returned full of anecdotes from the forests of Ecuador.

This is a sham-man bearing gifts, an ambiguous spellbinder dealing simultaneously in contrary commodities wisdom and deception. That's unusual. It may be important. And it needs straightening out. (De Mille, 1976) But perhaps the greatest concern for academia is that Castaneda's work exemplifies a stunning and embarrassing parody of normative anthropological practice. The research is presented as fact, but the field notes are lost, the results are qualitative and therefore not repeatable, and the methodology is unconventional, even dangerous (involving entheogen ingestion). Additionally, the publications are more populist than academic and read more like an autobiography than a positivist ethnographic record. Many anthropological supporters of Carlos were steadfast in their 'belief' in Don Juan and the ‘truth' of the writings, not because they were naive but because they required the material to be presented as scientific anthropological facts. Presentation as normative anthropology legitimated both their belief in the universal shamanic 'truth' of the work and their own approaches to shamanisms. Unfortunately for experiential anthropology, Castaneda's tale is bogus in every other way, so giving the methodology a poor entrance into anthropology. And had Castaneda actually been reflexive and candid - and quite simply honest about his 'novelistic' accounts, the literary turn in anthropological method of the 1990s might have had an earlier introduction into the discipline. A behaviour encouraged by reading Casraneda's books and the influence the books have had on his readers (including their disruption of certain Native American societies Castaneda's books sensationalised), are issues which have been almost completely overlooked. Thousands of readers seeking an alternative to chemical psychedelics headed for the hills of southern Mexico. The local Indians were overwhelmed by the sheer number of hippies and appalled by their manners. But this does not stop Castaneda's books being 'spiritually' valid to neo-Shamans. Noel in the above quoted book suggests. The absolute bizarreness of this whole Castaneda controversy must bewilder those largely unfamiliar with it. This in turn fuels the power of the Castaneda story, the public was not even informed until three months after Carlos died, and various stories surround the events of his death. The version favoured by acolytes of Carlos is that physical death was superseded by a spiritual death in which Castaneda's spirit transcended material existence…. The shamanic death of their founder marks a culmination point for the Toltec Warriors. From their perspective, 'Saint' Castaneda - whom most of them will never have met - has crossed over to the other-world near to a celebrated date in Western history, surely a fortuitous omen. Henceforth, Nagualism looks set to flourish in the new millennium. Castaneda's teachings remain fabricated lies to most of us, yet they have taken on biblical proportions to his aspirants. Whatever we choose to believe, Carlos Castaneda was certainly the greatest anthropological trickster, who, significantly, presented shamanisms in a way which made people want to be shamans.  


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June 27, 2003






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