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WILLIAM A. LESSA



1908-1997



William A. "Bill" Lessa, Professor, Emeritus of anthropology at the University of California at Los Angeles, and a major contributor both to Micronesian studies and the anthropology of religion, died in Los Angeles on October 14, 1997 at age 89, after a long illness. A native of Newark, New Jersey, Lessa was born on March 3, 1908. He received his A.B. from Harvard in 1928. After serving as a Researcher at the Constitution Clinic at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center (1929-30) and as a Research Associate at the University of Hawaii (1930-33), where he developed a life-long fascination with the cultures of the Pacific, he enrolled in the University of Chicago's graduate program in anthropology. He received an M.A. in 1941.

Like so many members of his generation, Lessa's graduate education was interrupted by World War II, during which he served with distinction as a Captain and later a Major in American military government in Italy. After the war, he returned to Chicago and, upon submitting a dissertation based on his wartime experiences, completed his Ph.D. in 1947. That fall, he joined the faculty at UCLA as an Instructor, but shortly thereafter took a leave of absence to do intensive field work on Ulithi Atoll, in the Western Carolines, a place he would return to on several occasions in later years for further research. He eventually rose to the rank of Professor, retiring in 1969 after a distinguished teaching career, during which he served as a mentor and good friend to dozens of UCLA anthropology graduate students.

Interestingly enough, one of the students Lessa took under his wing for a short time before his retirement was the soon to be famous, yet then unknown Carlos Castaneda. During the FALL of 1960 Castaneda wrote a paper on halluncinogenic plants for a class taught by Lessa. Although Castaneda was still an undergraduate, Lessa was so favorably impressed with what he presented in his paper he requested that Castaneda give a report on his findings in Lessa's graduate-level seminar titled "Myth and Ritual." C. Scott Littleton, a now retired professor of anthropology at Occidental College, who was a graduate student of Lessa's at the time, was asked by Lessa to sit in on the seminar --- telling Littleton "he had this Peruvian guy in his class who'd collected the best information from a shaman he'd ever seen, bar none." [1]

Trained initially as a physical anthropologist, Lessa's first major publication, An Appraisal of Constitutional Typologies (1943), probably did more than any single publication to discredit Sheldon's then-popular notion that body types--"mesomorphs," "endomorphs," etc.--determine personality structure. However, his exposure at Chicago to the ideas of Radcliffe-Brown and others caused him to shift his focus to cultural anthropology, with an emphasis on magico-religious belief systems. In this latter vein, in 1958, together with Evon Z. Vogt, he edited the first of what would eventually become four editions of Reader in Comparative Religion (4th ed., 1979), still widely considered the standard work in the field.

Lessa also became intensely interested in folklore and, in 1961, published Tales from Ulithi Atoll, a magisterial work that is often held to be a model of the genre. A few years earlier, in 1956, he published a paper entitled "Oedipus-type Tales in Oceania," which definitively demonstrated that the Oedipus story is not universal, as the Freudians had long held, but has a limited geographic distribution. His comprehensive ethnography, Ulithi: A Micronesian Design for Living, a mainstay of the old Holt, Rinehart and Winston "Case Studies" series, has been read and appreciated by generations of anthropology students, as well as professionals in the field.

Lessa, who never married, is survived by a brother, Alfred Lessa, of Berkeley Heights, New Jersey; and a niece, Rose Natale, of Lakewood, New Jersey.


Most of the above with thanks to C. Scott Littleton.


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FOOTNOTE [1]

The problem with the quote attributed to Lessa, "...he had this Peruvian guy in his class who'd collected the best information from a shaman he'd ever seen, bar none," although esstentially accurate because the information emanating from Castaneda no doubt was the best bar none at the time, the underlying co-factors for its reasoning is wrong IF the implication is that the information was garnered somehow from Castaneda's interaction with the Yaqui Indian sorcerer Don Juan Matus.

Why so? Because the paper written and turned in by Castaneda for Lessa's class --- as well as his presentation to the graduate level seminar --- was all done during the FALL semester of 1960, which was prior to any indepth interaction or indoctrination with Don Juan Matus. The Nogalas Bus Station Meeting between Castaneda and Don Juan transpired at the end of the summer of 1960 and lasted not much more than a few minutes --- 15 to 20 minutes at the most. It was months later, at the end of the fall semester, during winter break, on December 17, 1960, AFTER the paper was turned in and the presentation done, that Castaneda caught up with Don Juan and had any major or lengthy interaction with him.

As to what happened, if anything, between Castaneda and the man he came to call Don Juan Matus at that bus station meeting --- or how long or short that first meeting between the two may have been --- in THE TEACHINGS OF DON JUAN: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge (1968), Castaneda writes in his own words what transpired:


"I then told him that I was interested in obtaining information about medicinal plants. Although in truth I was almost totally ignorant about peyote, I found myself pretending that I knew a great deal, and even suggesting that it might be to his advantage to talk with me. As I rattled on, he nodded slowly and looked at me, but said nothing. I avoided his eyes and we finished by standing, the two of us, in dead silence. Finally, after what seemed a very long time, don Juan got up and looked out of the window.

"His bus had come. He said good-bye and left the station."


It seems apparent Castaneda did all the talking and Don Juan basically did no more than nod, look, and stand in silence during the time they were together. As short as the bus station meeting was it is quite clear, in his own words, Castandea could NOT have garnered any significant amount of information during their time together because, for the most part, Don Juan said nothing. For a more indepth reconstruction of events see: The Informant and Carlos Castaneda as well as CARLOS CASTANEDA: Timeline.


One other quick addition to this Footnote. Some people have suggested that the statement attributed to Lessa "...he had this Peruvian guy in his class who'd collected the best information from a shaman he'd ever seen, bar none," could not be true in that a professor of Lessa's status would NEVER use the word "shaman." In so saying, the idea is to undermine the statement so it could never have been said. However, that the word "shaman" would NOT be used by Lessa and others of his ilk is an outsider's view. When individuals or closed groups of insiders such as Lessa and Littleton get together political correctness drops by the wayside. It is not unlike Blacks, for example. Within their own circles or amongst their close friends they can and do use the N-word. If an outsider or White person were to join the group and start throwing the word around there would be hell to pay.


SEE: WE DO NOT HAVE SHAMANS: The Case Against "Shamans" In North American Indigenous Cultures


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