For anyone who wants an idea of what Carlos 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. 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 supposed metaphysical and philosophical discourses of don Juan (especially in Castaneda's 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.
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.
This book contains invaluable information about crucial elements of Aztec ritual life, including those of the tonalli, nahualli, the animal guardians, and the great flower of darkness, the Talocan ; there are many wonderful descriptions of the syncretic blend of the pre-Colombian and the Catholic and quite specific descriptions of the ancient technique of Dreaming, used to navigate in the harsh and often unforgiving underworld. The story is told by a master raconteur who introduces us to two wily and remarkable teachers of the old ways, Inocente and Rubia. In a masterful sweep of the history of a small town in the Sierra de Puebla we get to see their roles in the havoc caused by the tension between the indigenous peasants and the mestizo rulers in which the former's only defense were the ancient techniques of "snuffing the candles of the unjust". K's prose allows the reader to revel in the evocative beauty of Nahuatl and it evokes one's respect and affection for the people he is writing about (in short, this is anthropology at its best). I recommend the book to people interested in exploring the thin line between the real and the imaginary, reality and dreams, and to those who like to witness how the new world and the old world can meet in the spirit of respect, strength and mutual enrichment.