Evans-Wentz, W(alter) Y(eeling) (1878–1965)
American scholar who became an authority on fairy lore and
the mysticism of Tibet and India. Evans-Wentz was born February
2, 1878, in Trenton, New Jersey. Later he moved to La
Mesa, California, where he lived with his family for several
years. He studied at Stanford University, California (B.A. English,
1906; M.A., 1907). He traveled to Britain, where he studied
social anthropology at Oxford University under Sir John
Rhys, professor of Celtic.
Two other scholars had an important influence on him William
James, whose lectures on psychology Evans-Wentz had attended
at Stanford and who had early encouraged his studies
in fairy lore; and Andrew Lang, authority on folklore and psychical
research, who was one of Evan-Wentz’s examiners at Oxford
University when he presented his thesis on fairy lore.
From this thesis, supported by fieldwork in Wales, Ireland,
Scotland, and Brittany, grew his major work, The Fairy-Faith in
Celtic Countries (1911). After further expeditions in Brittany,
Ireland, Wales, the Isle of Man, and Cornwall, he was awarded
a D.S. at Oxford University in 1910.
His research into common traditions of fairy faith led to
more detailed study of pagan and Christian religious beliefs
and practices, and then to comparative religion. In 1917 he
traveled in India, studying the mysticism and religious practices
he believed were once closely connected in both East and
West. In one account of those travels, he writes
‘‘I have spent more than five years in such research, wandering
from the palm-wreathed shores of Ceylon, and thence
through the wonderland of the Hindus, to the glacier-clad
heights of the Himalayan Ranges, seeking out the Wise Men of
the East. Sometimes I lived among city dwellers, sometimes in
jungle and mountain solitudes among yogis, sometimes in
monasteries with monks, sometimes I went on pilgrimages.’’
These travels took him throughout India and to Tibet,
where he lived as a Buddhist monk and spent three years with
Tibetan Lama Kazi Dawa-Sandup until the lama died in March
1922. As a result of these researches, Evans-Wentz published
several important texts on Tibetan mysticism, including The Tibetan
Book of the Dead (1927).
In 1931 Oxford University conferred upon him the degree
of D.S. in comparative religion, a rare honor, because at that
time he was one of only six persons, and the first American, to
receive that degree.
A year later he attended meetings of the Self-Realization
Fellowship in San Diego, California, under Paramahansa Yogananda,
a famous yogi whom he had met in India. During his
travels, Evans-Wentz had also met Sri Yitkeshwar Giri, a guru
of Yogananda, in Puri, Orissa. In 1935 he visited the ashram
of the famous Sri Ramana Maharishi at Tiruvannamalai in
southern India. He also maintained close contact with Buddhist
organizations and was welcome in many different religious
groups; he hoped to unite East and West in mutual understanding
and religious insight.
Toward the end of his life, he retired to San Diego, California,
for 23 years. He was drawn to the Self-Realization FellowEvans,
W. H. Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed.
ship, which had a colony at Encinitas. In 1946 he wrote a warm
tribute to Paramahansa Yogananda as a foreword to the yogi’s
Autobiography of a Yogi. At the Self-Realization Fellowship,
Evans-Wentz worked with a secretary on his final book, Sacred
Mountains of the World, which he completed before his death, in
his 88th year, on July 17, 1965.
In his will he made generous bequests to various religious
organizations. He also left 2,000 acres of land near Tecate to
the state of California to be used as an experimental reforestation
and recreational area; this estate included Coochama, a
mountain sacred to Native Americans. He also assigned mineral
rights in his property (some 5,000 acres) to Stanford University
to establish a professorship in Oriental philosophy, religion,
and ethics. Some of his Oriental manuscripts were left to
the Bodleian Library at Oxford University, England; others he
gave to Stanford.
At his cremation service on July 21, 1965, there was a reading
in English from his own edition of The Tibetan Book of the
Dead, invoking the Perfect Enlightenment of Pure Reality.
Evans-Wentz, W. Y. The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries. 1911.
Reprint, New York Lemma, 1973.
———. The Tibetan Book of the Dead. 1927. Reprint, London
Oxford University Press, 1957.
———. The Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation. New York
Oxford University Press, 1954.
———. Tibetan Yoga and Secret Doctrines; or, Seven Books of
Wisdom of the Great Path. 2d ed. London Oxford University
Press, 1958.
———. Tibet’s Great Yogi . . . Milarepa. 2d ed. London Oxford
University Press, 1969.