This post was originally published on August 6, 2013 and has been updated significantly since that time.
People often use the terms “right-hand path” and “left-hand path” to represent an alleged moral dichotomy in magic – a dichotomy of absolute altruism versus extreme egocentrism. On one level, the right-hand path (RHP) is supposedly the “good” and “light” path where people try to overcome their base animal desires by worshiping stern lawgiver Gods. The left-hand path (LHP), in turn, is the supposedly “dark” and “evil” path where people seek to fulfill their base animal desires at any cost, including their immortal souls and/or the personal safety of others. (This is captured in the medieval European image of the Faustian sorcerer who makes a pact with the devil in exchange for wine, women and wealth.) On another level, the right-hand path is supposedly about “returning to nature,” “becoming one” or submitting to something greater than yourself, while the left-hand path is about “being your own God” and sublimating others. Such are the most popular definitions for these terms in contemporary Western occult circles.
But I have many problems with these definitions. For one thing, these terms were taken from Hindu and Buddhist Tantra, in which they mean completely different things. For Tantrics, the right and left-hand paths are not mutually exclusive paths (with one being “moral” and the other being “immoral”), and it’s not necessarily a matter of people being “devoted” to one or the other. They’re actually complementary paths that are used to achieve the exact same goal: self-transcendence (or “enlightenment”). Furthermore, the two paths only differ in how they propose to induce self-transcendence. In the simplest terms, the rituals of left-handed Tantra (Vama Marga) include sexual intercourse while the rituals of right-handed Tantra (Dakshina Marga) do not. (Instead of involving actual sex, “right-handed” procedures feature symbolic substitutes.)
A good deal of nonsense has been talked about these terms, ‘left-hand’ and ‘right-hand,’ by Western occultists who, following H. P. Blavatsky’s erroneous interpretation of them, have endeavored to endow them with some moral significance – the transition from ‘left’ to sinister, and from thence to ‘evil’ is an easy, and misleading one for the European to make. In reality the terms have no moral significance whatsoever. They simply express the plain fact that in rites culminating in physical sexuality the woman practitioner sits on the left of the male, whilst in those in which the copulation is merely symbolic, she sits on his right.
– Francis King, Sexuality, Magic and Perversion (1971), p. 35
The worship of Goddesses like Ishtar – which involved the practice of “sacred marriage” – are among the oldest examples of “left-handed” methodology. The priestesses served as incarnations of their Goddesses and dispersed Their fertility to entire communities through sacralized intercourse (usually with a king). This came from the belief that sex – being the key to reproduction – is a magical re-enactment of Creation, though its sacramental nature has never been limited to its procreative function. (In some cases, just the experience of sexual ecstasy itself is enough to trigger a mind-blowing experience of the Divine.) Other examples of LHP methodology include the Maenadic rites of the Bacchanalia (which involved drunken, orgiastic revelries), the alleged goings-on at early modern witches’ sabbats (which were said to involve sex with demons), the sex magic of Thelema (in which the “Scarlet Women” played the same role as Ishtar’s holy women in Babylon), the Great Rite in Wicca (which used to culminate in the sexual union of a high priest and priestess), and the rituals of the Church of Satan (in which naked women served as living altars).
As time went on, someone came up with the idea that using sexual symbolism is better, safer, or just more convenient than having real ritual sex, and that’s how the right-hand path came along. There might have been a few different reasons for this, and I’m sure one of them was probably STDs. But I’m equally sure that another reason had to do with cultural gender roles. In left-handed spiritual practices, women are living gateways between this world and the spirit world, for they are the ones who carry men’s seed and give birth to children. But some men probably started to resent the idea that they had to go through women anytime they wanted to reach the Divine, so they developed symbolic alternatives to sex that would enable them to do this alone. This could have been related to the belief that when men ejaculate, they deplete their own life force (i.e., the concept of la petit morte or “the little death”). It was no doubt reasoned that for a man to penetrate the spirit world by himself, he would need to refrain from ejaculating as much as possible (which meant abstaining from sex and following an ascetic lifestyle). As the ancient matriarchies gave way to patriarchal societies, this sort of spirituality became the norm and left-handed mystics were forced to adapt.
If people were now being taught as children that sex and feminine power were “unclean,” those who wished to tread the left-hand path would need to un-learn this new cultural programming. This meant they’d have to do certain things that frightened or repulsed them so they could be desensitized and acclimated to these things; only then could they learn to accept them as normal. Such is why the left-handed sects began breaking taboos like eating meat, drinking alcohol and having orgies. As non-spiritual as these practices may sound, it must be kept in mind that Tantrics are required to have gurus and to follow some very strict protocols. Surprisingly, the protocols in Vama Marga are even more strict than those in Dakshina Marga. Becoming an initiate of Vama Marga doesn’t mean you get to run around and drink as much as you like or sleep with all the people you want; it’s not just a “free-for-all.” When it comes to Tantra at least, you’re only allowed to take part in the “dirty” stuff once you’ve proven that you can handle it without forming any unhealthy addictions. Such is why it’s said that you should never walk the left-hand path without a guru’s supervision.
When Westerners started looking at Tantra during the 19th century, they drew some rather silly conclusions. They accepted the right-handed Tantrics as a religion (since these Tantrics avoided many of the same sexual taboos that Westerners normally expect religious people to avoid), but they derided the “southpaws” as a bunch of devil-worshiping black magical cults. (This wasn’t helped by the fact that the Latin word for “left-handed” is sinister, which has since become a synonym for “evil.”) Enter the European occultists, who delighted in co-opting elements of exotic faiths without really understanding them. Helena Blavatsky took one look at Dakshina Marga and Vama Marga and concluded that the former fit nicely with her Theosophical tradition, while the latter was simply an exercise in narcissistic hedonism and materialism. Later occultists like Aleister Crowley and Anton Szandor LaVey took it from there, expanding on these implications accordingly. In other words, this entire “altruism versus egocentrism” dichotomy for the RHP and the LHP is really a result of Western imperialism and cultural appropriation.
Another problem I have with this oversimplified usage of Tantric vocabulary is that I find it very hypocritical. In the operative sense of the term at least, magic is a very human-centered endeavor; it’s an attempt by human beings to manipulate events in such a way that they will personally profit from them somehow. Whether it’s being used to heal the sick or to destroy one’s enemies, the magician is still “playing God.” He or she isn’t content with praying or making supplications to Deities for good fortune; he or she boldly commands the things he or she wants to occur. Now I have nothing against this idea in and of itself; I don’t consider it “unethical” or anything like that. But let’s be frank here: it requires a bit of an ego to think you’re capable of doing that, and most every major name in Western magic has belonged to someone with such an ego. It’s all too easy to see how guys like Aleister Crowley and Anton LaVey were self-centered egomaniacs, but what about Gerald Gardner, Alex Sanders, or Oberon Zell-Ravenheart? Each of these fellows had a major narcissistic streak, and magic (being the ultimate ego trip) naturally promotes that sort of thinking. This applies every bit as much to so-called “white witches” as it does to so-called “black magicians.”
Even crystal-gazing New Age folk like Sylvia Browne and Jane Roberts treat the spirit world like it’s a gigantic Burger King, where you can have everything “your way.” They tell their followers how to get in touch with their higher selves and magically grant their own wishes. We see the same thing in most Pagan literature as well, for it almost always emphasizes spellcasting over worship. Go to any book store, look at the books about Paganism, and count how many you find that tell you how to form a lasting relationship with a personal Deity. Then count the number that focus on how to cast spells to win someone’s affection or find a better job. I can tell you right now that the latter number will be much higher than the former, and that’s because most Pagans aren’t interested in worshiping Gods; they’re interested in gaining some kind of power over their lives. Again, I don’t see anything wrong with that personally; if spellcasting is more your bag, then more power to you. But why is the LHP always defined as “self worship” here in the West when there are really just as many people on the RHP who do the same thing? Whether it’s coated with sugar or dipped in spice, the message is still “My Will be done” instead of “Thy Will be done.”
During the earliest years of my walk with Father Seth, I came to identify myself as an LHPer; but my concept of the LHP was always a little different from most. I viewed it less in terms of “My Will vs. Thy Will” and more in terms of the Gods, myths and symbols that people were identifying with. During the 1990s at least, if you wanted to talk to other folks who walked with beings like Seth-Typhon, Loki, Lucifer or Lilith, your best bet was to look for them in the LHP subculture. People like us just weren’t as welcome in “brighter” spaces back then – I can’t tell you how many times I met up with a Wiccan who thought my God was too “creepy” for me to be a “legitimate” Pagan – and the idea of giving a lecture about Seth or hosting a public ritual to Him at something like a Pagan Pride event was just unthinkable. (A thousand praises upon Katakhanas for breaking that particular social barrier last year!) But there was also a catch-22 happening; since LHP circles were some of the only places that people like me could meet each other, this only strengthened the assumption that anyone who trucked with our Gods was an egomaniacal “black magician.”
(There were also reconstructionist circles that some of us could have theoretically joined, but this wasn’t always an option either. While Seth was – and still is – given a decent amount of respect in Kemetic Orthodoxy, reconstructionism has never been my thing, and most of the KO practitioners I spoke with at the time were really scared of Him. I think I made them extremely uncomfortable whenever I reached out to them, so I gave up after a while. Meanwhile, Loki’s companions had it even tougher, since most of the Asatruar and Heathens I knew were not very keen on Loki being worshiped at all. The only outspoken Loki-defender I can remember from that period is the lovely Alice Karlsdóttir, who did not identify as LHP so far as I know.)
So in my experience at least, there are (or were) at least two different dimensions to the Western LHP experience: (1) an enthusiasm for “darker” Pagan Gods and (2) a whole lot of self-centered egomania. I certainly identified with the first of those dimensions, but I never could get behind the second. It just didn’t make any sense to me why God-centered traditions should be excluded from the LHP when there were just as many human-centered traditions being included in the RHP. (Nevermind the fact that God-centered traditions are not excluded from the Tantric left-hand path.) Thankfully, the growth of non-reconstructionist devotional polytheism in the 2000s has given people like me a more adequate place for our voices to be heard. (Just look at the sheer amount of Lokean blogs that exist now!) For people like us at least, the old RHP/LHP terminology has become increasingly irrelevant. The only way I can see it having any meaning today is if it’s used according to its original Tantric context. If you take your clothes off, masturbate and/or have sex during a ritual (whether as a form of worship or spellcasting), you’re using a left-handed ritual procedure. If you keep your clothes on and use a symbolic substitute for sex (e.g., sticking an athame in a chalice, using an aspergillum, etc.), then you’re using a right-handed ritual procedure. That definition might not work for everyone, but it’s how I’ve come to see things at least, so take from it what you will.