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Ancestors and Spirit Masters: The World of Shamans

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Shamanism is often associated with indigenous and tribal societies, but it also evokes ideas about mystical journeys and exotic cultures.

It involves belief that certain religious practitioners have ability to communicate with a spirit world and to exercise powers ranging from healing illness to easing the passage of the dead into the afterlife.

This course considers shamanism from an anthropological and historical perspective, looking at increasing interest in shamanism and the role of ecstatic experience, and perceptions of the shaman in popular culture, film, art, and literature.

We will consider specific cultures in Eurasia, Oceania and among the First Nations cultures in North and South America, examine material relating to the classical world and to cultures where shamanic practices are reflected in ancient literature, and ask how ‘shamanism’ has become integrated into heritage and touristic narratives.

This is a course for anyone interested in the rich variety of sources, anthropological, archaeological  and popular, that will help us to understand shamanism from an historical perspective and its relevance in the modern urban world.

Learning and teaching

The module will be delivered through ten sessions consisting of a lecture followed by class discussion on specific topics relating to the module.

The discussion will enable students to think critically and contribute to the debates and topics presented during the lectures.

The discussion-led sessions and the lectures will be supplemented by resources available to students via Learning Central.


  • Introduction to Shamanic Belief Systems
  • Prehistoric Aspects of Shamanism
  • Historic Aspects of ‘Siberian’ Shamanism
  • Shamanism and the Witches’ Sabbath
  • Megaliths and Possible Shamanic Practice
  • Shamanism Among the Peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast
  • Presenting Shamanism in Tourism and Heritage
  • Second Sight, Fairy Mythology and Shamanism
  • Female Actors in Tarantism and Zar Rituals
  • Shamanism and Neo-Paganism

Coursework and assessment

You will be expected to complete two pieces of assessed work:

  • a short critical review
  • a 1000-word essay.

Advice and support will be provided for both assignments and you will receive detailed feedback relating to strengths and areas for improvement on both pieces of work.

Reading suggestions

  • Graham Harvey, Shamanism: A Reader (London and New York: Routledge, 2003).
  • Ronald Hutton, Shamans: Siberian Spirituality and the Western Imagination (London: Continuum, 2010).
  • Neil S. Price (ed.), The Archaeology of Shamanism (London and New York: Routledge, 2001).
  • Robert J. Wallis, Shamans/Neo-Shamans: Ecstasy, Alternative Archaeologies and Contemporary Pagans (London and New York: Routledge, 2003).
  • Andrei A Znamenski, The Beauty of the Primitive: Shamanism and the Western Imagination (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007

Library and computing facilities

As a student on this course you are entitled to join and use the University’s library and computing facilities. Find out more about using these facilities.


Our aim is access for all. We aim to provide a confidential advice and support service for any student with a long term medical condition, disability or specific learning difficulty. We are able to offer one-to-one advice about disability, pre-enrolment visits, liaison with tutors and co-ordinating lecturers, material in alternative formats, arrangements for accessible courses, assessment arrangements, loan equipment and dyslexia screening.