(The Secret of the Plumed Serpent by Armando Torres)
As a young student of anthropology, Carlos received a strange system of knowledge and became involved in sorcerer’s training without being fully aware of what he had got himself into. He discovered that sorcery, far from being an absurd set of practices, spells and incantations, actually was a very ancient philosophy of life implemented by extremely disciplined practitioners.
By linking his fate to the Nagual’s party, Carlos learned that don Juan and his companions were the last of a lineage of ancestral knowledge that had flourished for thousands of years in what is now Mexico and parts of Central America; a unique culture of people passionately dedicated to discovering the secret of existence. They were known as toltecs.
Toltec is the name given to anyone practising the arts that lead to knowledge. Toltecs’ tasks relate to investigations in the field of self-control, the awareness of being, and the manipulation of inorganic beings they call allies.
Even today, scattered all over Mexico, descendants of those ancient lineages follow the path and practices of their ancestors.
(The Fire from Within by Carlos Castaneda)
I had arrived in the city of Oaxaca in southern Mexico on my way to the mountains to look for don Juan. On my way out of town in the early morning, I had the good sense to drive by the main square, and there I found him sitting on his favorite bench, as if waiting for me to go by.
I joined him. He told me that he was in the city on business, that he was staying at a local boarding house, and that I was welcome to stay with him because he had to remain in town for two more days. We talked for a while about my activities and problems in the academic world.
As was customary with him, he suddenly hit me on my back when I least expected it, and the blow shifted me into a state of heightened awareness.
We sat in silence for a very long time. I anxiously waited for him to begin talking, yet when he did, he caught me by surprise.
“Ages before the Spaniards came to Mexico,” he said, “there were extraordinary Toltec seers, men capable of inconceivable deeds. They were the last link in a chain of knowledge that extended over thousands of years.
“The Toltec seers were extraordinary men – powerful sorcerers, somber, driven men who unraveled mysteries and possessed secret knowledge that they used to influence and victimize people by fixating the awareness of their victims on whatever they chose.”
He stopped talking and looked at me intently. I felt that he was waiting for me to ask a question, but I did not know what to ask.
“I have to emphasize an important fact,” he continued, “the fact that those sorcerers knew how to fixate the awareness of their victims. You didn’t pick up on that. When I mentioned it, it didn’t mean anything to you. That’s not surprising. One of the hardest things to acknowledge is that awareness can be manipulated.”
I felt confused. I knew that he was leading me toward something. I felt a familiar apprehension – the same feeling I had whenever he began a new round of his teachings.
I told him how I felt. He smiled vaguely. Usually when he smiled he exuded happiness; this time he was definitely preoccupied. He seemed to consider for a moment whether or not to go on talking. He stared at me intently again, slowly moving his gaze over the entire length of my body. Then, apparently satisfied, he nodded and said that I was ready for my final exercise, something that all warriors go through before considering themselves fit to be on their own. I was more mystified than ever.
“We are going to be talking about awareness,” he continued. “The Toltec seers knew the art of handling awareness. As a matter of fact, they were the supreme masters of that art. When I say that they knew how to fixate the awareness of their victims, I mean that their secret knowledge and secret practices allowed them to pry open the mystery of being aware. Enough of their practices have survived to this day, but fortunately in a modified form. I say fortunately because those activities, as I will explain, did not lead the ancient Toltec seers to freedom, but to their doom.”
“Do you know those practices yourself?” I asked.
“Why, certainly,” he replied. “There is no way for us not to know those techniques, but that doesn’t mean that we practice them ourselves. We have other views. We belong to a new cycle.”
“But you don’t consider yourself a sorcerer, don Juan, do you?” I asked.
“No, I don’t,” he said. “I am a warrior who sees. In fact, all of us are los nuevos videntes – the new seers. The old seers were the sorcerers.
“For the average man,” he continued, “sorcery is a negative business, but it is fascinating all the same. That’s why I encouraged you, in your normal awareness, to think of us as sorcerers. It’s advisable to do so. It serves to attract interest. But for us to be sorcerers would be like entering a dead-end street.”
I wanted to know what he meant by that, but he refused to talk about it. He said that he would elaborate on the subject as he proceeded with his explanation of awareness.
I asked him then about the origin of the Toltecs’ knowledge.
“The way the Toltecs first started on the path of knowledge was by eating power plants,” he replied. “Whether prompted by curiosity, or hunger, or error, they ate them. Once the power plants had produced their effects on them, it was only a matter of time before some of them began to analyze their experiences. In my opinion, the first men on the path of knowledge were very daring, but very mistaken.”
“Isn’t all this a conjecture on your part, don Juan?”
“No, this is no conjecture of mine. I am a seer, and when I focus my seeing on that time I know everything that took place.”
“Can you see the details of things of the past?” I asked.
“Seeing is a peculiar feeling of knowing,” he replied, “of knowing something without a shadow of doubt. In this case, I know what those men did, not only because of my seeing, but because we are so closely bound together.”
Don Juan explained then that his use of the term “Toltec” did not correspond to what I understood it to mean. To me it meant a culture, the Toltec Empire. To him, the term “Toltec” meant “man of knowledge.”
He said that in the time he was referring to, centuries or perhaps even millennia before the Spanish Conquest, all such men of knowledge lived within a vast geographical area, north and south of the valley of Mexico, and were employed in specific lines of work: curing, bewitching, storytelling, dancing, being an oracle, preparing food and drink. Those lines of work fostered specific wisdom, wisdom that distinguished them from average men. These Toltecs, moreover, were also people who fitted into the structure of everyday life, very much as doctors, artists, teachers, priests, and merchants in our own time do. They practiced their professions under the strict control of organized brotherhoods and became proficient and influential, to such an extent that they even dominated groups of people who lived outside the Toltecs’ geographical regions.
Don Juan said that after some of these men had finally learned to see – after centuries of dealing with power plants – the most enterprising of them then began to teach other men of knowledge how to see. And that was the beginning of their end. As time passed, the number of seers increased, but their obsession with what they saw, which filled them with reverence and fear, became so intense that they ceased to be men of knowledge. They became extraordinarily proficient in seeing and could exert great control over the strange worlds they were witnessing. But it was to no avail. Seeing had undermined their strength and forced them to be obsessed with what they saw.
“There were seers, however, who escaped that fate,” don Juan continued, “great men who, in spite of their seeing, never ceased to be men of knowledge. Some of them endeavored to use seeing positively and to teach it to their fellow men. I’m convinced that under their direction, the populations of entire cities went into other worlds and never came back.
“But the seers who could only see were fiascos, and when the land where they lived was invaded by a conquering people they were as defenseless as everyone else.
“Those conquerors,” he went on, “took over the Toltec world – they appropriated everything – but they never learned to see.”‘
“Why do you think they never learned to see?” I asked.
“Because they copied the procedures of the Toltec seers without having the Toltecs’ inner knowledge. To this day there are scores of sorcerers all over Mexico, descendants of those conquerors, who follow the Toltec ways but don’t know what they’re doing, or what they’re talking about, because they’re not seers.”
“Who were those conquerors, don Juan?”
“Other Indians,” he said. “When the Spaniards came, the old seers had been gone for centuries, but there was a new breed of seers who were starting to secure their place in a new cycle.”
“What do you mean. a new breed of seers?”
“After the world of the first Toltecs was destroyed, the surviving seers retreated and began a serious examination of their practices. The first thing they did was to establish stalking, dreaming, and intent as the key procedures and to deemphasize the use of power plants; perhaps that gives us a hint as to what really happened to them with power plants.
“The new cycle was just beginning to take hold when the Spanish conquerors swept the land. Fortunately, by that time the new seers were thoroughly prepared to face that danger. They were already consummate practitioners of the art of stalking.”
Don Juan said that the subsequent centuries of subjugation provided for these new seers the ideal circumstances in which to perfect their skills. Oddly enough, it was the extreme rigor and coercion of that period that gave them the impetus to refine their new principles. And, owing to the fact that they never divulged their activities, they were left alone to map their findings.
“Were there a great many new seers during the Conquest?” I asked.
“At the beginning there were. Near the end there were only a handful. The rest had been exterminated.”
“What about in our day, don Juan?” I asked.
“There are a few. They are scattered all over, you understand.” “Do you know them?” I asked.
“Such a simple question is the hardest one to answer,” he replied. “There are some we know very well. But they are not exactly like us because they have concentrated on other specific aspects of knowledge, such as dancing, curing, bewitching, talking, instead of what the new seers recommend, stalking, dreaming, and intent. Those who are exactly like us would not cross our path. The seers who lived during the Conquest set it up that way so as to avoid being exterminated in the confrontation with the Spaniards. Each of those seers founded a lineage. And not all of them had descendants, so the lines are few.”
“Do you know any who are exactly like us?” I asked. “A few,” he replied laconically.
I asked him then to give me all the information he could, for I was vitally interested in the topic; to me it was of crucial importance to know names and addresses for purposes of validation and corroboration.
Don Juan did not seem inclined to oblige me.
“The new seers went through that bit of corroboration,” he said. “Half of them left their bones in the corroborating room. So now they are solitary birds. Let’s leave it that way. All we can talk about is our line. About that, you and I can say as much as we please.”
He explained that all the lines of seers were started at the same time and in the same fashion. Around the end of the sixteenth century every nagual deliberately isolated himself and his group of seers from any overt contact with other seers. The consequence of that drastic segregation, he said, was the formation of the individual lineages. Our lineage consisted of fourteen naguals and one hundred and twenty-six seers, he said. Some of those fourteen naguals had as few as seven seers with them. others had eleven, and some up to fifteen.
He told me that his teacher – or his benefactor, as he called him – was the nagual Julian, and the one who came before Julian was the nagual Elias. I asked him if he knew the names of all fourteen naguals. He named and enumerated them for me, so I could learn who they were. He also said that he had personally known the fifteen seers who formed his benefactor’s group and that he had also known his benefactor’s teacher, the nagual Elias, and the eleven seers of his party.
Don Juan assured me that our line was quite exceptional, because it underwent a drastic change in the year 1723 as a result of an outside influence that came to bear on us and inexorably altered our course. He did not want to discuss the event itself at the moment, but he said that a new beginning is counted from that time; and that the eight naguals who have ruled the line since then are considered intrinsically different from the six who preceded them.