Graduate Liberal Studies Program

Course Descriptions

GLS 522: Shamanism

Instructor: Christopher Laursen

In this newly revised online course, graduate 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. We will focus on scholars, such as Hunter, who self-reflexively critique Eurocentric reductionism in studies of shamanism and spirits. Four main approaches presented by Hunter will be explored in understanding shamanism: (1) participation/experience; (2) ontological flooding and thinking beyond established theories; (3) embracing complexity and acknowledging that there are no easy answers; and (4) how studying consciousness and nature through shamanism helps us better study ecology and the non-human.

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 the different ways in how one becomes a shaman, their interactions with spirits, and spirit possession. We will differentiate shamanism from mental illnesses diagnosed in Western medicine. In addition to studying forms of shamanism from different parts of the world, we will investigate neo-Shamanism, particularly in how it presently manifests through online communities and social media.

Goals Students will all have practical exercises to intellectually and creatively explore shamanism. There will be self-guided applied learning exercises related to each week’s themes. 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 shamanistic group with a resulting creative or research project - 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.


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.

Last Update: October 9, 2018