The Right Hand PathPosted: December 27, 2012
I have written several posts about the Left Hand Path since that is the way my religious and magical philosophy is often described and characterised. Tilda at Swift Expressions recently suggested it would be interesting to get my perspective on what the reverse of the Left Hand Path actually means. Of course I can only give a view from the path I walk myself but I see it as an interesting challenge to explain the Right Hand Path and I will try to be as objective and factual as possible despite my clear leanings in the other direction.
The distinctions Right Hand and Left Hand Path are usually only applied to traditions which are associated with the occult and magic but they can sometimes be applied to any religion or philosophical tradition. Generally the labels are used more specifically to differentiate Left Hand Path practitioners from those on the Right Hand Path who are often regarded as being the norm that Left Handers deviate from. Hence, many Right Hand Pathers don’t even recognise or use the term to refer to themselves. The terms left-hand and right-hand paths in Western occultism are often attributed to Theosophy founder Helena Blavatsky but in fact can be traced back to various Eastern practices and definitions.
Broadly Right Hand Paths are often regarded as good whereas the left is attributed with evil and weakness. Clearly I view that as a gross and misleading over-simplification. Right Hand Paths usually place emphasis on submission to authority (usually God), an unchangeable moral code (often said to be based on some form of God’s law), a degree of self denial and aspirations to altruism. In terms of magic The Right is associated with benevolent “white” magic as opposed to what is seen as selfish and sometimes evil “black” magic as practised by those on the left. Within these broad terms the vast majority of religions including everything from Islam and Christianity to Druidry and Wicca are usually described as Right Hand Paths.
Now many of these attributes of the RHP sound good and wholesome in the light of contemporary western standards and morals; so why would anybody want to deviate from them unless they were bad and evil people? Let’s look more closely.
Right Hand Paths tend to emphasize submission to God, the church and the creed and doctrine thereof. They believe in respecting deity as something far superior to ourselves and therefore tend to believe it is presumptuous or foolish to question or challenge something that is so much wiser and more knowing than our own limited knowledge of the universe. Great merit is attached to acts of faith; to admitting ones lack of understanding (or perhaps conviction) and simply obeying the will of God (usually as translated by “The Church”. Some of the people held in esteem by such religions are people who have put their own doubts aside and carried out God’s will by faith alone.
Personally I think there is a place for faith, for admitting that we don’t know everything and choosing to trust our instincts or a particular element of belief which cannot be proved logically. However, I reserve the right to take that approach on a case by case basis and not base my entire spiritual life on turning my reasoning switch off. In my opinion living by faith alone leads to fundamentalism and makes a person both unreasoning and unreasonable. One of the awful things about the evil people who hijacked planes to crash them into the world trade center on September 11th is that no amount of reasoning could have stopped them. Their particular perverted form of Islam had driven them beyond reason and the pleas of the innocents on those planes who must have begged them to think again about what they were doing. And there are plenty of times when fundamentalists from Christianity and other religions of the right hand path have acted just as insanely.
Submission to outside authority whether it be The Church, doctrine or God him/herself is not something that those of us who lean to left generally do very much. We venerate ourselves, by which we mean we use the brains we have to work things out for ourselves as much as possible and we take credit both for our triumphs and our mistakes. We acknowledge our own powers and the Spiderman maxim that with great power comes great responsibility. Many Left Hand Pathers are in essence atheists, but even those of us who believe in deity have quite a different relationship with our Gods and Goddesses. We may sometimes choose to submit to our deity but it is in pretty much the same way that you might occasionally choose to submit to a lover in a way that is satisfying to both. In general we believe our deities expect us to learn and grow through our own efforts as well as by their inspiration and guidance.
In regard to ethics Right Hand Paths tend to defer to an unchangeable moral code often said to be given by God such as The Ten Commandments. They tend to believe in certainties and sometimes struggle in the grey areas that many moral questions are found in. I would love to believe there were some moral absolutes and I think perhaps there are in a democratic sense. However like most Left Handers I have come to believe that most morality is relative and the most any individual can do is be true to their own moral code. So again the difference here is that those on the RHP submit to outside authority while those on the left try to be more self reliant. Some might call that arrogance; I prefer to think of it as intelligent personal responsibility. To put it another way there will be those on the right who believe I am a bad person for using birth control or for being bisexual because their authorities tell them so. I’d prefer people to use their own brains and their own judgement.
Many right hand paths seem to advocate self denial and the good of the many as opposed to the good of the one (unless that “one” is God). They view those of us on the left as being self centered and self serving in a very negative sense. While, to be fair, they usually admit their failings, they aspire to be selfless and altruistic. They aim to serve their community and serve their God. On the surface this may seem like a good thing and very worthy aspiration; but is it really? It can easily lead to a feeling of moral superiority and often quite hypocritical self satisfaction. On the left we put ourselves first and are honest about it. This does not mean we can’t or don’t do many things to help our neighbors and our community. I like to think I am a kind and generous person and I support several charities. However I believe that in helping others there is usually a personal pay-off as well, even if that is just a warm feeling inside. Perhaps there are a few people who are truly altruistic and if they are also effective in the way they choose to help others and if they make a positive difference in the world then they have my respect. Very often however I think those who claim to be the most altruistic are in fact quite hypocritical and self serving on many levels.
I think it is good and wise to help other people and other animals. I also think it is good and wise to look after yourself first. In the fight against poverty and injustice, sad defeated and dead soldiers are no help to anybody.
Finally I come to the subject on which the Right and Left Hand paths are most commonly compared, magic and the occult. There may be a few people reading this who think that magic and the occult do not exist within the mainstream religions. I don’t have the time to debate that in this post but I would suggest such people spend a little time on the internet and they will find that magical practitioners exist in pretty much all religions. However in present times witchcraft, magic and the occult are probably most famously and openly practiced in Neo-Pagan and New Age religious movements. It is here that the lines between right and left are drawn most clearly. Those on the right claim only to use so called “White Magic”; magic that harms nobody, magic that is kind and beneficial and principally worked on behalf of others. White light is symbolic of purity and goodness and while practitioners on the RHP may invoke good, kind hearted entities they spurn the invocation of more “dangerous” darker energies in magical workings. They completely disassociate themselves from those of us who may sometimes use “Black Magic”, who may conjurer demons or work magic for selfish personal ends.
But are these boundaries really so clearly drawn? Personally, I think not.
Even now the words witch and witchcraft are synonymous in many people’s minds with the most grotesque misconceptions of evil and the satanic. For many centuries people could be put to death on the mere suspicion that they practiced witchcraft (indeed in some parts of the world this is still true today). So even now those of us who openly identify as witches risk far more than mere ridicule. Thus modern traditions which include witchcraft have been eager to redefine what witchcraft is and disassociate themselves completely from anything that could resemble popular misconceptions of “Black Magic”. Perhaps the best known neo-pagan religion that is open about using witchcraft is Wicca.
I learned most of my craft as part of a Wiccan coven and I still have great respect and reverence for many Wiccan beliefs and practices. But while I understand why they don’t want to be associated with the darker side of magic and why they are often keen to trumpet their “Harm None” rule, I think in practice they are being a little economical with the truth. Even in basic ritual and elementary magic Wiccans do invoke and engage with entities and energies that would not exactly be at home on The Disney Channel! Of course Wiccans are essentially good people and the majority of their magic is about helping people; but the magical tools they use are no more squeaky clean than those that I use.
The truth is that magic itself is not really black or white. It is best viewed as a tool that can be used for good or ill depending on the intention and personality of the practitioner. Doctors sometimes use poisons and dangerous radiation therapy to cure people. Those same things could just as easily be used to kill people. Skill and intention are always key.
Where there may be a significant difference is that those of us on the Left Hand Path, generally don’t subscribe to religious moral codes about what we will or won’t use our magic for. We don’t promise to harm none, we don’t state that we won’t use magic in revenge or to further our own needs. Of course that does not mean that we devote all our time to magically doing all the things that would be forbidden anywhere else. It simply means that we live by our own moral judgments and we take the responsibility and consequences for what we do. And that in essence is it…
Those on the Right Hand Path live their lives and do what they do based on their trust of other people’s rules. Those on the Left Hand Path live and do as they judge best. There are good and bad people in both camps.