In Oregon, the land where scrap paper goes to die and be resurrected, I bought a used paperback of The Witch’s Dream by “Florinda Donner-Grau.” I put the name in quotation marks, because she was born Regine Margarita Thal, but under the influence of her cult leader, Carlos Castaneda, she changed almost everything about herself. When he died, she along with the rest of a group called his “witches” disappeared. Since the body of one of them–the one he adopted and then had sex with–has been exhumed, the leading theory is that they followed a plan initiated by Castaneda himself and killed themselves by jumping to their deaths. This would have been under the misapprehension (a misapprehension cultivated in more than one of his books) that such a jump might result in being bodily transported into the nagual, his name for the unconscious. He presented it as a literal other dimension.
That leads to interesting questions about the nature of cults. According to the Graves/Jung schema I present in this blog, human society started out as relatively egalitarian tribes (L2). When these confronted environmental or other problems they could not solve at that level, they went on to more hierarchical structures, each headed by a minor king, who typically claimed descent from the gods and thus religious as well as political authority (L3). In other words, the whole society became a cult.
Although L2 tribes have stories about supernatural beings, they lack the kind of developed drama we expect in narratives. Consequently, what we generally think of as ancient myths come from L3, with competing gods and mortals in easily understood hierarchies. These are the myths retold by Homer and Ovid. When I teach about ancient religion as part of literature classes, an inevitable question is how could people believe what they were themselves making up.
The relevance of this to The Witch’s Dream is that it is a kind of fan fiction set in Castaneda’s fantasy world, except that both Castaneda and “Donner-Grau” presented that world as fact. Even with Castaneda, coherence is far from perfect and “Donner-Grau” seems stylistically confused about whether she is writing memoir or 3rd-person, omniscient novel. While still teaching Castaneda’s martial art and stocking up on guns for the cult, she, through her books, was contributing to its mythology. In particular,The Witch’s Dream elaborates the idea of “witch’s shadow,” the inheritance of power from a parent or patron, by being seduced by longing for authority. That longing and all the jockeyings for position resulting from it held Castaneda’s cult together. Who has completely escaped such a seduction? Did even Castaneda transcend the desire to be the heir of the sorcerer Don Juan, whom Castaneda probably invented?
The secularist site Salon comments on this situation: “’He [Castaneda] became more and more hypnotized by his own reveries,’ she [the former cult member, Gaby Geuter] told me [Wallace, another former member]. ‘I firmly believe Carlos brainwashed himself.’ Did the witches? Geuter put it this way: ‘Florinda, Taisha and the Blue Scout [the one Castaneda adopted] knew it was a fantasy structure. But when you have thousands of eyes looking back at you, you begin to believe in the fantasy. These women never had to answer to the real world. Carlos had snatched them when they were very young.’”