What Are the Left-Hand and Right-Hand Paths?

A Sometimes Bias Definition in Western Occultism

Occult and religious paths are sometimes divided into two categories: the left-hand path and the right-hand path. While there are many religions and spiritual practices in each path and they vary considerably, they hold a few things in common. These terms are not void of controversy and bias, however.

What is the Left-Hand Path?

The left-hand path is considered to be about the elevation and centrality of the self as well as the rejection of religious authority and societal taboos.

The left-hand path focuses on the strength and will of the practitioner. It downplays the need for intercession by any high power although some may believe that a higher power exists.

Satanism (both LaVeyan and Theistic) and Luciferianism are considered left-hand paths. Followers of Thelema disagree whether it is a left- or right-hand path.

What is the Right-Hand Path?

The right-hand path, in the words of left-hand path follower Vexen Crabtree, "concentrate[s] on the symbols of goodness, of the sun, of herd mentality and submission to god(s) and religious authority."

To put it a little more diplomatic, the right-hand path can be thought of as one of dogma, ritual, and a belief in the community and formal structure as well as a higher power. Though each of those can also be found in left-hand path religions, there is less focus on indulging the self in the right-hand path. 

The vast majority of religions are considered part of the right-hand path, from Christianity to Wicca.

Limitation and Bias of Usage

One very large limitation of this terminology is that it is primarily used by followers of the left-hand path. Satanists commonly describe their path as that of the left-hand. However, Christians, Jews, Wiccans, Druids, and the like do not identify themselves as being of the right-hand path.

As such, definitions of the right-hand path tend to be phrased in fairly derogatory terms as Crabtree demonstrated. In addition, many people described as being of the right-hand path would disagree to varying degrees with the definitions commonly given.

Conversely, those people who do identify themselves as followers of the right-hand path generally describe the left-hand path as a one of evil, maliciousness, and danger. In this use, the terms become roughly synonymous with white magic and black magic, two other highly biased terms.

The Origin of the Terms

The terms left-hand and right-hand paths in Western occultism is commonly attributed to Theosophy founder Helena Blavatsky, who borrowed the terms from Eastern practices.

The West has a long history of associating the 'right' with goodness and correctness and the 'left' with inferiority. A person's most trusted adviser is often called his right-hand man. Until recently, left-handed children were often forced to learn how to do things with their right hand, since left-handedness was considered a developmental error.

In heraldry, the left side of a shield is known as the sinister side, which is based on the Latin word for "left." This later became associated with evil and maliciousness.

The sinister side also bears the coat of arms from the bearer's maternal side. This reinforces the secondary importance of women in comparison to men.