Left Hand Path (LHP) is a phrase used to describe some alternative religious movements and religious practices involving magic. LHP movements are said to involve self development instead of communal concerns, self analysis instead of group meditation, self empowerment for material reasons rather than for spiritual ones. The focus is on individualism, freethought, intelligence and personal abilities and gifts. Practitioners of Thelemic Magic and Chaos Magic (championed by Aleister Crowley and Austin O. Spare respectively) often call themselves LHP1 and Satanism is one of the few left-hand-path religions. Historically some LHP groups have pushed past the limits of acceptable behaviour.
The LHP is contrasted with the "Right Hand Path" (RHP) that upholds symbols of goodness, of the sun, of herd mentality and of submission to gods and religious authority. The idea of the "left hand path" comes from Indian Tantric philosophy which contrasted the left path (vama-marga) against the right path (dakshina-marga); this terminology was popularized in the West through the teachings of Helena Blavatsky and the Theosophists, who were responsible for bringing many Hindu teachings from Indian and Westernizing them1,2. "Left-handedness" has had ancient negative associations and "the left" (as a symbol opposed to "the right") is nearly always the inferior of the two3,4. The English word "sinister" comes from the Latin word for "left-handed" and in history Christian and Islamic institutions have ostracized left-handers and physically punished them. The RHP represents the vast majority of religious practice in the World and followers of the LHP are often instinctively reticent about revealing their affiliations.
LHP philosophies frequently include the following features:
Emphasis on freethought and a rejection of codified doctrine. The "rules" in LHP religions are frequently merely "guidelines".
Personal, not universal. LHP philosophies do not claim that they are the best religion for all people and frequently claim they are only a valid religion for some people.
Moral relativism and subjectivism.
“[The terminology] represents a deliberate attempt by Left-Hand Path magicians to transcend the outmoded and value-laden dichotomy of 'black' versus 'white' magic ... because it is held to reflect the 'moronic oversimplicity of the Judeo-Xtian distinction between good and evil.”
"Left-Hand Path Ritual Magick" by R. Sutcliffe (1995)1
“Collective religious and cultural norms are questioned in the pursuit of individualized ethics and spiritual evolution. The magician seeks to abandon his/her culturally given set of ethics, and adopt personal and individualized ones”
For an analysis of this aspect as embodied by Satanism, see "Satanism and Elitism: The Alien Elite: 2.1. Culture: Rise Above Culture" by Vexen Crabtree (2002).
Individualism: 'The individual and his/her spiritual development is the primary concern in Left-Hand Path spiritualities, even with individuals operating in groups. ... It could be argued that most or all esoteric traditions throughout history have been individualistic in character. However, the distinction with Left-Hand Path spiritualities is that this individualism is raised to the level of explicit ideology'2.
The View of Man as a Psycho-physical Totality: In other words, there is no dualism. 'The essence of man is considered to be both physical and psychic, and any absolute separation of these spheres is considered unsound, reductionist, or even impossible'2. See "The Satanic Mind is Balanced" by Vexen Crabtree (2002).
The Appraisal of Life in the Here-and-now: 'The focus of Left-Hand Path spiritualities is on corporeal existence in the present, not on an afterlife. All aspects of life are valued, even its destructive aspects. [...] Moderate to extreme hedonism is advocated'2. See "The Religion of the Flesh" by Vexen Crabtree (2002).
Many of the longer quotes above are taken from Kennet Granholm, who writes on the features of left-hand-path religions in a chapter in "Contemporary Religious Satanism" by Jesper Aagaard Petersen (2009)2.
The left has become nearly universally shunned. The right has been associated with all things good and pure whilst the left has been shunned as unholy, evil, and relegated to inferiority3,4. Although Gooch says that "the left is universally unlucky in the classical world", Gregory (1987) widens the scope considerably by saying that "this symbolism has pervaded nearly all cultures (except the Chinese). Ancient Greeks and Romans regarded the left side as inferior and profane, and in medieval times use of the left hand was associated with witchcraft".
In New Zealand the Maoris considered the right side to be godly, representing life; the left side is dedicated to demons and the devil, representing death. Muslims believe good spirits speak into peoples' right ears, but evil spirits speak into the left. In medieval Europe the Devil is drawn with its left hand outstretched. Amongst North American Indians the right represents bravery and virility but the left signifies death and burial. Early Native American mothers would tie their babies' left arms to make them righthanded, matching the customs of some Catholic schools during the Dark Ages (and beyond). In China you must eat with the right hand. The Nuer people of Africa, the Dutch Indies local native populations and many other old cultures bind the left arm to put it out of use 'for long periods', especially in the young and with left-handed people. Throughout the African continent the right is good and the left is evil. In some places wives should never touch their husbands' face with their left hand. The same patterns persist in South America: The right is good, is life, is divine but the left is female, bad, evil and morbid.
Exceptions: It is not completely universal that left has been inferior to right. In Eastern symbolism, left (Yang) is male and right (Yin) is female.
“When an Emperor faced South to receive homage for his subjects, the sun was on his left, which was therefore the superior side. In Japanese Shintoism, the ropes (Shimenaw) that demarcate a sacred place are twisted to the left because it is considered to be the lucky side.”
"1000 Symbols" by Shepherd, Rowan and Rupert (2002)
In nearly all languages the etymology of words and saying associated with the left are negative and fearful. The word 'left' is associated with evil, trouble or the devil. In Latin 'left' and 'sinister' are linked. The same pattern repeats in many cultures and societies.
Left is Bad: The Greek root "dexter" that gives us the word "dextrous" (skilful) means "on the right", and occurs in Indo-Iranian, Celtic, Lithuanian, Slavonic, Albanian, Germanic and elsewhere. "Left-handedness generates endless nicknames, which right-handedness never acquires. [...] The standard word for left also always means something totally derogatory. 'Left' itself (from Old English lyft) means 'weak, worthless, womanish'. Italian mancino means 'dubious, dishonest', French gauche means 'awkward', Latin sinister is English 'sinister' [...] Among the Nyoro in Africa, for example, 'left' means 'hated', and in Japan [it] means 'crazy'" [Gooch, 1984]
Right is Good: "Right" apart from "dextrous" variously means direct, erect, erection, correct, regal, royal, regiment, rights, forthright, upright, dignity, decent, decree, doctrine and so on.
“In Judaism and Christianity the right side of the body represents the first stage of Creation, daytime, consciousness, Adam, Man and active power. The left represents the second stage of Creation, Earth, matter, right, Eve, Women and receptivity. In alchemy, the right and left hands reflect conscious and subconscious actions, the active and passive. Right symbolizes solar and left lunar.”
"1000 Symbols" by Shepherd, Rowan and Rupert (2002)
Catholic Schools until surprisingly recently used to punish those who dared write left-handed because they were presupposed to be working for the devil - such children were "corrected" - a word which itself means "with the right".
In the Qur'an and the Christian Bible the elect and God's favourite sit on its right hand side, and the damned on its left. In the Gospel of Matthew the author has Jesus place God's followers (the sheep) on its right and the goats (non- followers) on its left hand side (Matthew 25:33). The Catholic Church held for over a thousand years that being left handed made you a servant of the Devil and that anything left-handed was evil. [Gooch, 1984] Muslims forbid the touching of any holy scripture with the left hand. Jesus sits on the right hand of God. In pictures of the Last Judgement the Christian God shows his disciples their new heavenly abode with his right hand, and points with his left to hell. The Left Hand Path, therefore, being the demonic, the diabolical and the Earthly path to Hell.
Stan Gooch highlights the fact that in the vast majority of cultures, from every continent from Africa, Asia, Australasia, Europe and the Americas, the the "left" is normally associated with femininity and the "right" with masculinity. This is despite the fact that 'almost twice as many males as females are left-handed'5 but let's not let mere facts interfere with the superstitious religions of the world, eh?! The reasons for this association are lost in time. Gooch points out that because the left hand is frequently weaker than the right that this might have lent itself to the comparison to womankind.
The left has also frequently been associated with the lunar sphere - therefore with the night, the bad and uncanny spirits of the world, and with devilry. Most religious traditions have involved either sun-worship or nature-cycle symbolism: The sun makes the crops grow and is good, and the moon represents dark, hard times, and is often Satanic.
"Tantra practitioner Dinu Roman writes, "Tantra is also called Vama Marga, i.e. The Left Hand Path, due to the fact that women, who are of lunar influence, negative polarity or the left, play an essential role in this science"6
Various indirect factors could have contributed to a general treatment of the left-hand as negative. Consider some of the following possibilities, all of which could be given religious interpretation from time to time.
Prejudice: "About 90 percent of the world's population is right-handed"5. Is there a kind of subconscious fear, distrust or apprehension of left-handed people, based on the occasional subconscious perception of the weird physical movements of those that are left handed?
A higher proportion of geniuses. Gooch (1984) does not conduct a statistical analysis, but he does state using anecdotal rhetoric that left handed people are disproportionately gifted. "One is struck by the quite outstanding contributions of 'lefties', academically, artistically and in all branches of sport. In many cases they are the very by-word of excellence ... as the following brief list of left-handers shows: Beethoven, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Goethe, Nietzsche". The point isn't to evaluate whether or not this is true, but, to realize that people only have to think it is true in order for social stereotyping to occur. This in itself may result in difference in attitude towards- and from- left-handers.
Left-Handed people are weirder? Perhaps left-handed people exhibit some slight difference in personality. Gooch points out that there is a high incidence of the left-handed amongst practitioners of many occult arts and proposes that part of the reason for the historical dislike of left-handed people is that they are noted for their uncanny skills and unnatural talents, provoking fear and distrust.
Primitive left-handed sanitary habits. Societies and peoples in pre-modern times used their left hand to clean themselves after defecation because the right-hand is normally the dominant hand. So food was not handled with the left hand and it was an offence to offer to shake someone's hand with your left hand. In the Arab world, holy texts could not be touched with the left hand.
Minor correlations between left-handedness and some other traits may play a role.
“According to British psychologist Marian Annett, more than twice as many artists, musicians, mathematicians, and engineers are left-handed as would be expected by chance. [...] About 10 percent of left-handers suffer from language disorders and reading disabilities, while only 1 percent of right-handers do. And recent studies suggest that left-handers are three times more likely to suffer severe migraine headaches and certain types of autoimmune diseases than are right-handed people.”
"Understanding Human Behavior" by James V. McConnel (1986)5
The increased incidence of migraines and autoimmune diseases (which are often visible) could have lent themselves to interpretation, in our superstitious past, as the afflictions of demons upon left-handed people.
Satanism is a ferocious religion based on materialism, the empowerment of the self and the ego, the carnal realities of animal life, the questioning of social taboos, the ridiculing of most other religions, and the promotion of tough social justice. Satan is not real but is the most ideal and accurate symbol of reality and nature: The world is full of violence, suffering, stress, striving and death - the life cycle itself requires all these things. It is clear that no symbol of 'goodness' or 'light' can embody it all. The vast, uninhabitable darkness of the Universe, with galactic cataclysms rendering huge destructions on huge scales, means that only Satan can embody the true state of everything that is. Satanists tend to use all the symbols of darkness and evil. There is no heaven, no hell, no afterlife, no angels or demons: there are no gods or saviours apart from ourselves. But if there was a god, it would surely be utterly evil.
The Church of Satan was founded in 1966 by Anton LaVey and as of 2001 its Black Pope has been the powerful and articulate Peter Gilmore. Satanism as religion is highly skeptical, rationalist and philosophical, demanding evidence and strong argumentation, but is otherwise open-minded on magic and some parts of the supernatural. Satanists are often bold, intelligent, demanding; but are also often subtle, cautious, hidden, while others still are outrageous, aggressive, angry and puzzling. It is a religion of fire, drama, depth and forceful progress.
Left Hand Path philosophies do not claim that they are the best religion for all people and frequently claim they are only a valid religion for some people. "Satanists are born, not made" LaVey. Satanism and the LHP is striking for the lack of missionizing. This is probably the result of the admission that no religion, philosophy or belief system is suitable for all people.
The Bible (NIV). The NIV is the best translation for accuracy whilst maintaining readability. Multiple authors, a compendium of multiple previously published books. I prefer to take quotes from the NIV but where I quote the Bible en masse I must quote from the KJV because it is not copyrighted, whilst the NIV is. [Book Review]
(2007) The Origins of Psychic Phenomena: Poltergeists, Incubi, Succubi, and the Unconscious Mind. My references are to the original edition published as "Creatures from Inner Space" (1984, hardback) by Rider & Company, London, UK. The edition linked to here is published by Inner Traditions 2007; information retrieved from Amazon UK on 2007 Dec 14. [Book Review] Chapter 11 is on left-handedness. Some relevant citations by Gooch come from the following sources (original reference numbers intact):
65. Robert Hertz, 'The Pre-eminence of the Right Hand: a Study in Religious Polarity' in Rodney Needham (111)
111. Rodney Needham, 'Left and Right', University of Chicago Press, 1973
Gregory, Richard L.
(1987) The Oxford Companion to the Mind. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK. Quotes from 1987 reprint.
Harvey, Graham & Hardman, Charlotte
(1995) Pagan Pathways. First published by Thorsons 1995. All quotes taken from Thorsons 2000 edition.
McConnel, James V.
(1986) Understanding Human Behavior. Hardback 5th edition. Originally published 1974. CBS College Publishing, Holt Rinehart and Winston, New York, USA.
Petersen, Jesper Aagaard
(2009) Contemporary Religious Satanism. Hardback. An anthology. Published by Ashgate Publishing Limited, Surrey, UK.
Shepherd, Rowan & Rupert
(2002) 1000 Symbols. Published by Thames and Hudson Ltd.