GOD & the Gods: Yaqui Indian Sorcery


The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge was copyrighted in 1968—the year I graduated high school. At that time, I was totally unaware of Carlos Castaneda. I first discovered Castaneda’s books sometime in the late 70s early 80s. As I recall, I read at least three of his latter books: The Second Ring of Power, The Eagle’s Gift, and The Fire from Within. I’m confident in my recollection since I still have those books in my library. However, for this installment in my “GOD & the Gods” series, I wanted to reference Castaneda’s early writings so I was able to acquire a used Touchstone Book paperback set of his first four books.

Back when I first read those three hardcover titles, I automatically assumed that don Juan, Castaneda’s teacher or guide into the world of sorcery, was Mexican or Hispanic when in fact he was a Yaqui Indian from Sonora, Mexico. According to Encyclopaedia.com, Yaqui Indians are an indigenous people of northwestern Mexico and Arizona. The Yaqui are unique in that they have preserved their own culture and identity for nearly 400 years by resisting assimilation into Mexican society.

In the years following my last read of Castaneda’s latter three books, I recall hearing that Castaneda recanted on his experiences with Yaqui Indian sorcery as described in his books. I was quite surprised to hear this news (I don’t recall the source) since I found it hard to believe someone would spend some 10 years of their lives devoted to such an endeavor to later admit it never happened. After conducting a little research, I discovered Castaneda never recanted however many academics and critics have since discredited his work.1 Nevertheless, I found his writings believable since he mentions in his books being chided frequently for his incessant notetaking during meetings with don Juan. Moreover, the detail with which he describes his sessions with don Juan, in my opinion, lends credibility to the narrative.

Each book in my set of paperbacks lists the book category as Philosophy/Anthropology or simply Anthropology on the back cover. While these books in fact present a detailed study of alternate realities and human culture, they also present a study of the occult and the spirit realm. While many of Castaneda’s critics have argued that his writings should be classified as fiction, His publisher Simon and Schuster still regards the books are nonfiction.2 As previously inferred, this writer accepts Castaneda’s books as nonfiction.

Perhaps Castaneda’s many critics and academics were led to dismiss him as “a hoaxer, a fraud, a sexual predator, a cult leader and maybe a psychopath”3 due to his productization of his shamanic teachings called “Tensegrity®” currently being administered by Cleargreen. I’m more inclined to lean towards this assessment since Castaneda made it very clear in his books that to become a “man of knowledge” along with being an impeccable “warrior” one had to be chosen.4

Aside from his personal experiences which he described in great detail in his books, Carlos Castaneda lived a very private life in conformance with Yaqui culture. According to a New York Times article from 1998, Castaneda “lived in almost total anonymity, refusing to make public appearances, be photographed or tape-recorded.”5

Carlos Castaneda died on April 27, 1998.

If you perform a google search on the word “Sorcery” you will get definitions that consistently contain the terms: evil spirits, supernatural powers, black magic, witchery, cast lots (divination), and magic. Personally, I think the definition provided in Wikipedia best describes the type of sorcery practiced by Castaneda and his teacher don Juan:

Magic (supernatural), beliefs and practices used to manipulate natural or supernatural beings and forces

Castaneda writes in the introduction to his first book that the people who lived with and who knew don Juan considered him to be a brujo, someone who possessed some sort of “secret knowledge” and who had extraordinary powers.6 However, don Juan referred to his teacher (unnamed) as a diablero, a person whom the locals described as an evil person who practiced black sorcery and who could change into an animal such as a bird, dog, or coyote.7 There is a parallel to this in Celtic spirituality, where certain deities had the ability to change into various animal forms, also known as shapeshifting.8

While many critics and academics have recast Castaneda’s writings as so much gibberish, the Bible on the other hand has established a clear precedent in that many books include narratives involving sorcery, magic and the secret arts. The three biblical narratives that I will use to defend my assertion are: Moses and Aaron and the plagues upon Egypt; the visit of wise men or magi after the birth of Jesus; and the encounter with Simon the magician in Samaria.

Moses and the Plagues

So Moses and Aaron came to Pharaoh, and thus they did just as the Lord had commanded; and Aaron threw his staff down before Pharaoh and his servants, and it became a serpent. Then Pharaoh also called for the wise men and the sorcerers, and they also, the magicians of Egypt, did the same with their secret arts. For each one threw down his staff and they turned into serpents. But Aaron’s staff swallowed up their staffs. [emphasis mine] (Exod. 7:10-12 NASB)

Earlier in the book of Exodus, God had granted Moses powers so that he could perform certain signs and wonders before Pharaoh and his servants. Note that the magicians were able to emulate the sign Aaron performed but God demonstrated that His power was greater than that of the Egyptians in that the magicians’ serpents were consumed by Aaron’s staff.

So Moses and Aaron did even as the Lord had commanded. And he [Aaron] lifted up the staff and struck the water that was in the Nile, in the sight of Pharaoh and in the sight of his servants, and all the water that was in the Nile was turned to blood. The fish that were in the Nile died, and the Nile became foul, so that the Egyptians could not drink water from the Nile. And the blood was through all the land of Egypt. But the magicians of Egypt did the same with their secret arts; and Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he did not listen to them, as the Lord had said. [emphasis mine] (Exod. 7:20-22)

Again, we see that the magicians of Egypt were able to duplicate the Lord’s second sign of turning the waters to blood. It’s also recorded in Exodus that the magicians were able to imitate God’s third wonder of calling up frogs over the land. It would seem that the magicians’ power was pretty much equal to the power God gave to Moses, that is until God’s fourth sign manifested itself.

They did so; and Aaron stretched out his hand with his staff, and struck the dust of the earth, and there were gnats on man and beast. All the dust of the earth became gnats through all the land of Egypt. The magicians tried with their secret arts to bring forth gnats, but they could not; so there were gnats on man and beast. Then the magicians said to Pharaoh, “This is the finger of God.” But Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he did not listen to them, as the LORD had said. [emphasis mine] (Exod. 8:17-19)

The text doesn’t explicitly state whether or not the magicians ran up against the limitations of their power or whether God intervened to prevent their magic from working as it did previously. I believe the former to be the case since the magicians were able to discern the difference between “the finger of God” and the source of their power.

Visit of the Magi

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.” [emphasis mine] (Matt. 2:1-2)

This is the Christmas story that everyone knows but not everyone agrees who the magi really were. It’s common for commentators and other writers to attempt to soften the text by substituting “magi” with “wise men” since magi is the root of our English word magic. Nevertheless, the NASB Dictionary defines Strong’s Greek #3097 “a Magian, i.e. an (Oriental) astrologer, by impl. a magician”9 definitely someone associated with the secret arts.

Even if the magi were really astrologers, how did they know the “star in the east” correlated to the “King of the Jews,” that is, the Messiah? What verse or verses in the Hebrew scriptures did they use to assert their belief? I’m sure a weak case can be made for the star in Numbers 24:17 but there is certainly insufficient information to make the association with the Jesus child. So, if the magi didn’t reference the Hebrew scriptures, then what manuscripts did they consult, if any? These are difficult questions to answer.

Finally, contrary to the title and lyrics in the song “We Three Kings of Orient Are” the Bible doesn’t specify how many Magi there were who followed the star to where Jesus was. The number three was probably instigated by an overzealous trinitarian.

Simon the Magician

But there was a certain man called Simon, who previously practiced sorcery in the city and astonished the people of Samaria, claiming that he was someone great, to whom they all gave heed, from the least to the greatest, saying, “This man is the great power of God.” And they heeded him because he had astonished them with his sorceries for a long time. [emphasis mine] (Acts 8:9-11 NKJV)

The phrase “practiced sorcery” in the text is derived from Strong’s #3096 and defined in the NASB Dictionary as “to practice magic.”10 I believe these verses speak for themselves.

Castaneda began his sojourn into the world of sorcery quite by accident—some would say. Castaneda writes that his original reason for his visit to the border areas of Arizona and Mexico was to learn more about psychotropic (medicinal) plants known to the Yaqui Indians there. Castaneda was introduced to don Juan by a friend at a Greyhound bus terminal, who just happened to be there at the same time they were. Even though Castaneda’s initial meeting with don Juan was cordial, it wasn’t until after a year and multiple visits with don Juan that Castaneda was taken under his wing, so to speak.11

However, it wasn’t until Castaneda’s encounter with Mescalito that don Juan affirmed his decision to take Castaneda on as his apprentice.12 Castaneda’s encounter with Mescalito occurred after chewing six peyote buttons13 Don Juan stated that he saw Mescalito playing with Castaneda which he interpreted as an omen that indicated Castaneda was the escogido or chosen one.14 15

I couldn’t help but draw a parallel between Castaneda’s encounter with Mescalito and certain scenes in the film The Serpent and the Rainbow where Bill Pullman’s character Dr. Alan has an encounter with An Hango, a powerful shaman, in the Amazon Basin.16 What follows is a summary of Dr. Alan’s hallucinogenic experience depicted in the film.

Dr. Alan arrives at the shaman’s location by helicopter. Dr. Alan is accompanied with an interpreter/guide to his meeting with the shaman. During the meeting, the shaman offers Dr. Alan one of his potions to drink. After drinking the potion, Dr. Alan almost immediately goes into a hallucinogenic mental state.

During his drug induced trip, he is confronted with a large cat (probably a jaguar) who instead of attacking him, begins to play with him. The shaman smiles while seeing Dr. Alan frolicking on the ground with the large cat.

When Dr. Alan awakens from his trip, he finds himself alone. He makes his way back to the helicopter only to find the pilot dead in his seat. Dr. Alan then starts his trek out of the Amazon basin on foot.

At some point on his journey out of the Amazon, he again encounters the same big cat he frolicked with earlier but now instead of trying to run away, he follows the big cat who leads him to a road which facilitates his passage back to civilization.

So, was Mescalito taking the form of the big cat in Dr. Alan’s experience? Or was the entity an ally? There’s really no way to tell for certain. However, the similarities with Castaneda’s experience are striking. Even though Mescalito appeared to Castaneda as a black, transparent dog,17 he doesn’t appear the same to everybody according to don Juan.18 Nevertheless, the big cat was Dr. Alan’s spiritual protector (e.g., ally?) a role that Mescalito also assumes along with teacher.19

According to the “structural scheme” provided by Castaneda at the end of his first book, Dr. Alan’s spiritual protector would not be considered an ally because Mescalito didn’t have a rule therefore he could be used by anyone without having to undergo a long apprenticeship.20 Nevertheless, don Juan classified both types of entities as “impersonal forces or powers”21 Eventually, he would admit that Mescalito was “like a spirit.”22

I believe don Juan was not being entirely honest with Castaneda when he described the entity Mescalito as an impersonal force since you wouldn’t expect an impersonal force to behave differently depending on the person he [Mescalito] is interacting with. Don Juan seems to contradict himself again during his discourse on Castaneda’s encounter with Mescalito as follows:

You see, sometimes he is playful, like a child, at other times he is terrible, fearsome. He either frolics or he is dead serious. It is impossible to know beforehand what he will be like with another person. Yet, when one knows him well—sometimes. You played with him tonight. You are the only person I know who has had such an encounter.23

Notice don Juan uses the pronoun “he” when referring to Mescalito. Wouldn’t a more appropriate pronoun be “it” for an impersonal force? Continuing the previous conversation, don Juan implies that Mescalito has feelings.

Can you tell me now, don Juan, how does peyote [Mescalito] protect…He did not let me finish. Vigorously he touched me on the shoulder. Don’t ever name him that way. You haven’t seen enough of him yet to know him.24

An impersonal force? I don’t think so. Mescalito, whoever he is, is definitely a person or an entity with a personality, i.e., spirit.

Another troubling inconsistency is with don Juan’s teachings on a minor entity called a “helper”25 which he describes as “a spirit that lives on the other side of the world.”26 Again, he deviates from his earlier teachings on the nature of Mescalito and allies.

Finally, as Castaneda points out in his structural analysis, an “ally was a power that had a rule.”27 Maybe a better definition would be “allies are entities with their own unique personalities who have established specific protocols to allow the adept to manipulate their power.” That is to say, rules are established for the adept or sorcerers to follow—allies, on the other hand, have a will of their own.

Another interesting aspect of don Juan’s teachings is the emphasis he places on the doctrine of election or predestination which are not subjects to be discussed in polite company. While I’m convinced the Bible clearly teaches election with respect to salvation, you won’t find many Christian ministers teaching this doctrine. Don Juan on the other hand had no problem with the concept of a higher power interceding in our lives by the communication of their will to the adept through the use of omens.

Don Juan confirmed the importance of omens when he explained his role as a teacher, “a teacher never seeks apprentices and no one can solicit the teachings It’s always an omen which points out an apprentice.”28 He further confided to Castaneda that “you, Genaro and I are stuck together by a purpose that is not our decision.”29 Clearly higher powers were at work.

As for Castaneda’s decision to become a man of knowledge under don Juan’s tutelage, it really wasn’t his decision but was “a design of power.”30

©2013-2024 Gerard Sczepura. All rights reserved.

  1. “The dark legacy of Carlos Castaneda,” Robert Marshall, Salon, April 12, 2007, The dark legacy of Carlos Castaneda | Salon.com

  2. Marshall, “The dark legacy.” 

  3. “Castaneda the sorcerer,” Daniel Miller, The Critic, March 04, 2023, Castaneda the sorcerer | Daniel Miller | The Critic Magazine

  4. Castaneda, Carlos, The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge, (Simon and Schuster, New York, 1974), 221. 

  5. “Carlos Castaneda, Mystical and Mysterious Writer, Dies,” Peter Applebome, The New York Times, June 20, 1998, Carlos Castaneda, Mystical and Mysterious Writer, Dies – The New York Times (nytimes.com)

  6. Castaneda, The Teachings, 14. 

  7. Ibid., 15. 

  8. Gerard Sczepura, “GOD & the Gods: The Celts,” Theological Ruminations (blog), June 06, 2018, GOD & the Gods: The Celts – Gerard Sczepura

  9. Robert L. Thomas, New American Standard Hebrew-Aramaic and Greek Dictionaries: Updated Edition (Anaheim: Foundation Publications, Inc., 1998). 

  10. Ibid. 

  11. Castaneda, The Teachings, 13-14. 

  12. Ibid., 55-56. 

  13. Ibid., 45. 

  14. Ibid., 55. 

  15. Castaneda, Carlos, Tales of Power, (Simon and Schuster, New York, 1974), 197, 229. 

  16. The Serpent and the Rainbow, directed by Wes Craven (Universal Pictures, 1988), 1:38:00. The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988) – IMDb

  17. Castaneda, The Teachings, 46-47. 

  18. Ibid., 102. 

  19. Ibid. 

  20. Ibid., 249-250. 

  21. Castaneda, Carlos, A Separate Reality: Further Conversations with Don Juan, (Simon and Schuster, New York, 1971), 15. 

  22. Ibid., 81. 

  23. Castaneda, The Teachings, 49. 

  24. Ibid., 49-50. 

  25. Ibid., 209. 

  26. Ibid., 210. 

  27. Ibid., 236. 

  28. Castaneda, Tales of Power, 229. 

  29. Ibid. 

  30. Ibid., 62. 

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