GLS 522: Shamanism

GLS 522: Shamanism

Summer 2 (July 1-Aug. 18, 2019): Online

Please watch the below video giving you a preview of the course.

Image: A collage of imagery from traditional and contemporary Buryat Siberian shamanism. 
[Sources: Transform Siberia / Arkady Zarubin].

Students will study traditional and contemporary shamanism through first-person accounts, scholarly studies, and cultural artifacts drawn from different parts of the world. We will critically assess shamanistic rituals, performances, experiences, and ecstasies – and the impacts shamans have on cultures and consciousness – while being attentive to what perspectives are etic (outsider) and emic (insider).

The anthropologist Jack Hunter (2012) notes the distinctive characteristics of shamanism as including the belief that shamans travel to a spirit world using altered states of consciousness, from dreams to trance to the consumption of psychoactive drugs. Shamans have the ability to heal the sick. And they may also transform into non-human forms, such as animals.

In studying shamanism, we will consider consciousness and nature beyond modern Euro-American rationalist and physicalist constructs. As much as possible, we will travel through the liminal space of shamans. We will venture into what the anthropologist Charles Laughlin (2012) refers to as “polyphasic cultures” that value altered states of consciousness as a way to gain insights from the realm of spirits – the sacred.

We will learn of how one becomes a shaman, their altered states of consciousness, and interactions with spirits. In addition to studying forms of traditional shamanism from different parts of the world, we will investigate neo-shamanism, particularly in how it presently manifests through media and commodification.

The course is structured into six units:

  • Unit 1: An Introduction to Shamanism
  • Unit 2: “Primitive” Magic
  • Unit 3: Vida
  • Unit 4: Neo-Shamanism
  • Unit 5: Psychomagic
  • Unit 6: Independent Project Workshop

Students will all have practical exercises to intellectually and creatively explore shamanism. Each week, through discussions and writing, the students will build toward completing a final project. The final project may be:

  • an applied learning project, for example, interview individual(s), participant-experiencing, or a study of an online or in-person shamanistic group with a resulting creative or research project
  • a curatorial project in which you present an aspect of shamanism in a way that it would be presented to the public in a physical or digital space
  • a creative piece in the media of the student’s choice (e.g. fiction, poetry, film, music, art, photography), with an aesthetic essay
  • a research paper, maximum 15 pages

You should consult with Dr. Laursen about the nature of your project as you develop it, and you will discuss your development process in Independent Project Workshops throughout the course.


Most readings will be provided online. There will be films available to stream online via UNCW or to rent online.
Students will acquire the following two books for the course:
  • María Sabina: Selections, edited by Jerome Rothenberg (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003). ISBN: 978-0-5202-3953-1 (pb). * Only available as a paperback through online sellers or UNCW Bookstore.
  • Alejandro Jodorowsky, Psychomagic: The Transformative Power of Shamanic Psychotherapy (Rochester, Vt.: Inner Traditions, 2010). ISBN: 978-1-5947-7956-5 (ebook or pb). * Only available as an ebook or paperback through online sellers; not available through UNCW Bookstore.

Visit the website for Graduate Liberal Studies, University of North Carolina Wilmington.

Last updated: 10 April 2019