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The Weird World of Carlos Castaneda and the Disappearance of His “Witches”

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Carlos Castaneda became a counter culture sensation in the 1960s based on his “scholarly” books that allegedly described his apprenticeship with a Yaqui sorcerer:


If you’ve ever seen that episode of the Simpsons where Homer goes on a search for his soulmate after hallucinating in magical chili peppers, that was based on Castañeda’s works. Today most reputable scholars agree that his books are fiction, but Castañeda still has a following and said books have never been out of print. During his lifetime, Castañeda built up a cult of personality among a small group of followers. However, when he died in 1998,his closest female followers, known as “the witches,” mysteriously disappeared and have not been seen or heard from since. It is generally believed that the women committed suicide as a group in keeping with Castañeda’s teachings:


(good article about the bizarre world Castañeda built)

 (BBC documentary about Castañeda and the disappearance of his “witches”)

As the article from Salon mentions, the skeletal remains of Nurie Alexander, Castañeda’s adopted daughter/ex-lover/student were found in Death Valley in 2006, the only “witch” whose death has been proven. Because so much time had passed, investigators were unable to ascertain the manner of her death, but my guess is that she either consciously committed suicide or died from exposure while thinking she was going to be assumed into another reality.

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@Cleopatra7 Thank you so much, for posting such interesting articles, full of links.  I don't always comment on them, but I always really admire and appreciate the way you pull them together, and how you share the things you know about with us.

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@Cleopatra7 thanks - do you think his books are worth reading just on literary merit? I haven't read any but I've liked some other South American writers and have been meaning to try one of his books.

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@StacyW, I think that Castaneda’s work is significant for its impact on Western popular culture and the development of New Age religious practices. If you want to know about the authentic religious beliefs and customs of the Yaqui people, you should look elsewhere. The BBC documentary I linked to indicates that while Castaneda does appear to have traveled to Mexico for his doctoral work, he didn’t do any fieldwork among the Yaqui; none of the Yaqui who were alive at the time recall being interviewed by him and they don’t even use peyote as a sacrament as Castaneda claimed they did. These false claims would have deadly consequences when hippies started to overrun Yaqui villages demanding to be initiated into nonexistent peyote rituals and causing trouble for the villagers. In one case, a stoned hippie even killed a Yaqui elder by accident. The hippie obsession with peyote would cause use of the substance to be banned, even for those cultures that do legitimately use it for their rituals. I know people throw around the phrase cultural appropriation a lot, but in Castaneda’s case, he threw a lot of people under the bus to achieve countercultural stardom, including the Yaqui people and the women who probably killed themselves under his influence.

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