A War of Witches: A Journey into the Underworld of the Contemporary Aztecs
by Timothy J. Knab (1993)
Review by Corey Donovan

For anyone who wants an idea of what Castaneda's work might have been like if he had written real ethnographical accounts of sorcery and "dreaming" as practiced by followers of ancient Mexican traditions, I strongly recommend this book by anthropologist Timothy Knab. It's also a colorful and intriguing story of revenge, murder and the impact of cultural upheavals spanning a period of over sixty years.

Knab was an anthropology professor in the early 70s at the National University of Mexico doing fieldwork in a small village in the Sierra de Puebla when he encountered authentic brujas and brujos who followed ancient traditions of sorcery and dreaming dating back to at least the Aztecs.

Unlike Castaneda, Prof. Knab is fluent in Nahuatl, and records the actual ancient terms used for various practices, and for regions of the dreaming world--Talocan or Tlalocan--that witches need to visit to help cure their patients, or to inflict harm on their opponents and other witches. He also faithfully records and translates his Nahuatl conversations with his two primary informants, an elderly man and woman of the village--Innocente and Rubia--who had both practiced curing and witchcraft for over 50 years. Unlike the metaphysical and philosophical discourses of don Juan (especially in the later books), these conversations are what one would expect of someone coming from this kind of cultural milieu.

Probably the most fascinating aspect of the book for Castaneda readers is the detailed descriptions of dream journeys that Prof. Knab is instructed in by his two informants. These sections of the book describe a realm that has a geography and consistent features that have supposedly been experienced by generations of Aztec-descended brujos.

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Another interesting aspect for me is the explanation of the Aztec concepts of "tonal" and "nagual," which is consistent with what I've seen in every other anthropological account of witchcraft and sorcery in Mexico and Central America, and completely inconsistent with Castaneda's uses of those terms. According to Knab, the Aztecs believed that the human soul had three aspects: (1) the yollo, the internal life force that gives the body movement and life, and which is equated with the heart; (2) the tonal, the aspect that normally travels in dreams, and is equated with the spark of life, fate or luck of an individual; and (3) the nagual, the spirit animal or animal alter ego of an individual, in the guise of which brujos can most easily travel and "see" in the particular dreaming realm of Talocan. Knab's informants also regularly use the term "those who are not our brothers," or ajmotocnihuan, in referring to the supernaturals they encounter in Talocan who are considered to be servants of the Lords of Talocan.

Knab's instruction and interaction with his informants described in the books takes place over a three-year period, from the fall of 1974 to the fall of 1977, but it also eventually leads him to unravel a dark tale of witchcraft and intrigue in the same region in the 1920s that ultimately led to dozens of deaths attributed to witchcraft. These killings, which occurred over a period of about a decade, were ultimately brought to an end only when the townspeople literally crucified one of the alleged witches.