Featured Course: Shamanism & Spirit Possession

As students embark on collegiate rites of passage, they learn about ancient rituals still alive today.
February 24, 2015

After nearly thirty years in the field, cultural anthropologist Rich Freeman has observed more than a hundred rites of spirit possession, especially in his field study area in southwest India. Now students can catch a glimpse of these elaborate initiations in this course, an interdisciplinary brew of religion, cultural anthropology, and history. A visiting professor of history and religious studies, Freeman first launched the seminar at the University of Michigan and brought it to Duke in 2009. He notes that the course is “obviously an outlier from the usual run of Duke offerings, but that seems to make it attractive to a self-selected and interestingly varied group of students.”

Per the course syllabus, “shamanism usually refers to individuals who claim to exit their bodies and venture into other realms of reality or consciousness, while spirit possession charts the opposite movement, where other selves or beings take over or are invited into a human host.” Both religious phenomena are thriving in many parts of the world today, and students will examine case studies from countries including Haiti, Ecuador, Indonesia, and the U.S. They’ll also study the social, political, and economic implications of various rituals.

The class will begin surveying shamanism and spirit possession and then discuss themes such as sociocultural interpretation, the role of psychotropic plants, language and performance, and shamanism and politics. Later, students will watch films about spirit possession and ultimately write a research paper on some regional or topical theme of their choice. The course includes a text on West African voodoo, which, contrary to popular belief, is not merely “sticking pins in dolls,” says Freeman, but rather “an elaborate cosmology.”

Shamanism and spirit possession blur the mind-body boundary and “trouble the notion of what it means to be a person, in terms of mind, body, spirit, and society,” says Freeman. College also marks a rite of passage, an initiation of selfhood. “Students are figuring out what they’re doing in life,” says Freeman. “They’re deciding what kind of person they want to become and the limits of that. Part of the anthropological mission is to open people to different ways of thinking.” Students will learn that in certain countries no longer under Soviet influence (Mongolia, for instance), shamanism is making a comeback. Freeman adds that because shamanism questions the limits of cognitive activity, the class attracts a number of neuroscience students.

  • Elizabeth '11 is a writer in New York. She previously worked as a senior editorial fellow for The Trace and a staff writer for Duke Magazine.