The terms Right and Left-hand path are perennial favourites for discussion. Indeed I first went into print on this subject over quarter of a century ago. Since that time the development of the internet and the emergence of neo-Paganism as an overground spiritual practice have radically altered the occultural landscape. During this period powerful words such as ‘tradition’, ‘witch’, ‘satanic’ and many others have continued to be defined, re-defined, re-claimed, pwned, used, lost and generally kept in ‘play’ in a way that would make Jacques Derrida proud. This process of (re)definition emerges in a fascinating way today in relation to Right and Left-hand paths (RHP and LHP) and particularly the Left-hand side of this duality.
I’ve not long finished reading the recently re-printed Lords of the Left-hand Path by Stephen E. Flowers and this, plus the ubiquitous debates on Facebook, have made me re-examine these terms again. The origins of them are well known, as is the history of their adoption by western occultism, but what’s of particular interest to me is the discussion about who ‘owns’ the term LHP. There’s no shortage of folk who want in on the use of LHP. Indeed teh modern interwebz must be creaking under the weight of data generated by the various competitors in this ‘darker than thou’ contest, from the cerebral Temple of Set to the spooky fan-fiction of The Order of Nine Angles.
Traced by Flowers’ book is a now well established contemporary conception of the LHP which has as its keystone a belief in an ‘isolate’ self. The suggestion is that the RHP is the path of transcendence, of practices that attempt to merge the individual identity with God/Goddess/Universal Mind/Whatever. In contrast to this the LHP seeks to make the Self a God, to glory in the ‘unnaturalness’ of the human existential attitude and to develop or reveal a self which is unchanging and eternal.
Lords of the Left-hand Path spends a fair amount of time ‘testing’ various figures and doctrine in history to see if they are ‘LHP enough’. Flowers takes the work of Crowley and holds it up to scrutiny through his Temple of Set-tastic frame of reference. The Beast gets the big thumbs down and, like a character in a game show, gets booted out of the Black House. Gurdjieff is a “more pure practitioner and teacher of the left-hand path than Aleister Crowley’ and so wins the title ‘Lord of the Left-hand path”. (I can see it now; the crowd goes wild! Or at least does some funny movements in unison.)
One thing I find interesting is that this understanding of the LHP is quite different to the historical use (in places like India) of that description. But words change their meaning all the time and so this isn’t to suggest that these ‘neo’-LHP groups shouldn’t use this phrase. Modern Pagans cheerfully rifle their way through the storehouse of images, language and ideas recorded in pre-Christian societies for spiritual building materials, and as humans we all adopt and transform the network of meanings in which we find ourselves from the moment we acquire language.
It might be easy to stereotype the neo-LHP practitioner as male, probably childless, the kind of bod who rather likes the aesthetic if not the praxis of totalitarian states. Who digs Julius Evola, Ayn Rand and libertarian politics. Who opposes gun control, enjoys the pomp and circumstance of esoteric titles and grades, who thrives on intellectual debate using a formalised lexicon of terms, and generally feels themselves to be part of a tiny, but terribly significant elite.
But just because we can parody something doesn’t mean it should be brushed aside. The neo-LHP asks some really good questions and has a great deal of relevance in the modern age.
For example; how do we forge communities of autonomous empowered people? What are the dangers of giving ourselves up to the transcendental Other?
Take the last point. National Socialism, and the horrors that its application as the Third Reich unleashed upon the world, was a movement founded on the submergence of individual identity. The great trance induction rituals of the Nazi rallies were brilliant operations to instil compliance with the total war machine. At its most intelligent the neo-LHP asks us to recognise our individual ‘isolate’ intelligence, to fight against being submerged into such collectives, to think for ourselves and question authority – to, as Gurdjieff would say, wake up.
The challenge for those who identify with the neo-LHP movement is to keep lines of communication open with the wider esoteric community. Not to withdraw into an isolationist position where their insights cannot inform others. (Un)naturally, this is tricky when those beliefs can tend towards a view of one’s own superiority over the ignorant mob.
Thankfully there are some excellent examples of neo-LHP magicians out there, questioning our desire to become part of a Star Trek style Borg and reminding us all as practitioners that we are living in a time when our explorations of spirituality, however gently Pagan, have only been made possible by the radical ideas of the few.