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LHP and RHP:  What Are They?

by Diane Vera

Copyright © 2003, 2004, 2005 by Diane Vera. All rights reserved.

  1. Who is classified as "LHP" or "RHP"?
  2. A brief history of the terminology
  3. The differences between "LHP" and "RHP"
  4. A proposed Satano-centric definition
  5. A modified standard Western occult definition
  6. Maybe we should just abandon these labels?

  1. Who is classified as "LHP" or "RHP"?
  2. What are "Left Hand Path" (LHP) and "Right Hand Path" (RHP)?

    To most of those folks who still use the terminology of "RHP vs. LHP" in a Western context, the following are RHP:

    And the following are LHP:

    Thelemites are somewhere in the middle, considered "LHP" by many, although Crowley considered himself to be "RHP."

    But what do the terms "LHP" and "RHP" actually mean, if anything? Various people have tried to define these terms abstractly. But all such definitions have been vast oversimplifications.

  3. A brief history of the terminology
  4. The terms "LHP" and "RHP" were originally borrowed from Tantrik Hinduism, in which "Right Hand Path" refers to the more respectable forms of Tantra, closer to orthodox Hinduism in their beliefs and practices, whereas "Left Hand Path" refers to the more heretical forms of Tantra, those whose practices have a reputation for being wild and dangerous.

    Among Western occultists, the terms "LHP" and "RHP" have historically meant essentially the same thing, substituting the Western occult subculture's own orthodoxies in place of orthodox Hinduism.

    Among Western occultists until at least the 1960's or so, "RHP" basically meant "that which the speaker approves of," and "LHP" meant "that which the speaker disapproves of." Nearly everyone in the occult scene considered themselves to be RHP and their enemies to be LHP.

    If I'm not mistaken, LaVey Satanists were the first well-known bunch of Westerners to call themselves LHP. Their example was followed by other groups that had been marginalized in the occult scene, e.g. Chaotes.

    Then, at some point, most mainstream occultists stopped calling themselves "RHP". The terminology of "LHP" vs. "RHP" is now used almost exclusively by people who identify as "LHP."

  5. The differences between "LHP" and "RHP"
  6. Given the history of the terminology, I see the main difference between RHP and LHP as being simply one of relative social respectability, both within the Pagan/occult scene and in society at large. Wiccans and Wiccanesque Pagans are RHP because they dominate the Pagan/occult scene. And Christian occultists are RHP because of their identification with the most popular religion in the world at large. On the other hand, "LHP" was a label claimed by some of the more marginalized groups, in an attempt to turn their very marginalization into a badge of honor.

    Another difference is that RHPers tend to believe in some sort of automatic cosmic moral law enforcement (e.g. the "Threefold Law"), whereas LHPers tend to believe that justice happens only insofar as people make it happen.

    Another difference is that LHPers tend to be fonder of "dark" imagery, whereas RHPers tend to be fonder of "white light" imagery.

    And another difference, of course, is that LHPers tend to be more individualistic -- at least in theory. Self-described LHPers typically define the difference between LHP and RHP in terms of individualism.

    But most of these differences, especially that last one, are only relative. For example, Wicca is considered RHP, but the Wiccan Rede ("'An it harm none, do what ye will") is pretty individualistic for the most part. Unlike most traditional religions, Wicca does not prescribe an elaborate set of social norms. The only norm is "harm none" (admittedly not an easy rule to follow, if you really think about it).

    So, to use any one of the above differences as a definition of LHP and RHP is a vast oversimplification of the paths categorized.

    Some people have defined LHP and RHP in terms of pillars of the Kabbalistic Tree of Life. According to this definition, LHPers emphasize the energies of the left pillar (the "pillar of severity"), whereas RHPers emphasize the energies of the right pillar (the "pillar of mercy").

    However, if defined this way, neither the LHP nor the RHP can possibly be a balanced path. Obviously, the only sensible option would be a middle path. In order for LHP and RHP both to be viable paths, neither one of them should be defined in a way that excludes the possibility of balance.

    In my opinion, "LHP" and "RHP" cannot be defined abstractly, in terms of just one aspect of the principles or aims of a particular path. Instead, I regard LHP and RHP as groupings that have evolved spontaneously, and whose "meaning" is mainly social and historical.

  7. A proposed Satano-centric definition
  8. In an earlier version of this article, I proposed the following definitions:

    I considered my Satano-centric definition of LHP to be appropriate because (1) the first people in the Western world to call themselves LHP, as far as I am aware, were Satanists, and (2) Satanism is still the most controversial religious category within the Western Pagan/occult/magick/New Age subculture, and is thus the polar opposite of RHP. Satanists are the dreaded shadow of the entire Western Pagan/occult/magick/New Age scene, the one group everyone else is worried about being confused with -- yet also, historically, one of key sources of much of the Western Pagan/occult/magick/New Age scene's vitality. (See Satanism and the History of Wicca and more recent articles on the history of occultism and modern Paganism.)

    Under my definitions proposed above, Wiccanesque Pagan Witches, especially those who advocate the Wiccan Rede and the Law of Three, are RHP by virtue of being the numerical majority in the Western Pagan/occult/magick/New Age scene. Christian Witches are RHP because they identify with the majority religion of Western society at large.

    As for Pagan Reconstructionists, most of them are RHP under the above definitions, for the following reasons: (1) Despite sharp disagreement with Wiccanesque Pagans on various matters, they exemplify the Wiccanesque Pagan ideal of reviving ancient religion -- in a more thoroughgoing way than Wiccanesque Pagans themselves do. (2) The Recons are reviving ancient popular religions, which many Recons hope will once again become popular. (3) To many Recons, mainstream social respectability is a very high priority. Thus, for example, they tend to feel extremely embarrassed by gothy, oddly-dressed young Pagans. (4) Many Recons are exceedingly hostile toward Satanists, even more so than many Wiccanesque Pagans are.

    On the other hand, there do exist some Recons who feel a kinship with Satanists. At least some of these would be LHP under the Satano-centric definition.

    Of course, my proposed definitions of "LHP" and "RHP" apply only to the Western Pagan/occult/alternative religion scene. They are not at all applicable to the Eastern traditions from which the terms are originally derived.

    The Eastern LHP and RHP do not differ from each other in their goals, but only in their methods. The Eastern LHP and RHP both seek the same kinds of spiritual experiences, involving the same sense of cosmic Oneness.

    On the other hand, Western Pagans and occultists, whether LHP or RHP, do not necessarily have a sense of cosmic Oneness as their goal. Some do have this as a goal, and others do not.

    Some would say that RHPers do seek cosmic Oneness whereas LHPers don't. Some have even used this distinction to define the difference between RHP and LHP.

    However, Christians, who should surely be classified as "RHP," do not believe in cosmic oneness and do not seek to merge with God. Some early forms of Christianity (e.g. at least some forms of Gnosticism) did believe in cosmic Oneness, but mainstream Christianity does not. The people in heaven are thought to be subservient yet forever distinct entities.

    Under my proposed Satano-centric definitions of "LHP" and "RHP," a pantheist who personifies the All as Satan is LHP, even if that person has a sense of Oneness with said All. Such a person's ideas on what the Oneness implies, in practical everyday terms, are likely to be quite different from those of a pantheist who personifies the Oneness in a more socially accepted way.

    My proposed Satano-centric definition never caught on in the larger Satanist/"LHP" scene.

  9. A modified standard Western occult definition
  10. At some point in 2004, I ceased to advocate my Satano-centric definition. For a while, I then became more inclined to accept a modified version of the most common definitions of "LHP" and "RHP" that are accepted by most who identify as LHPers. I defined as "LHP" those paths that (1) most strongly emphasize individuality and (2) don't believe in a cosmic cop of any kind (including an automated cosmic cop such as the "Threefold Law").

    But I continued to point out that part 1 of this definition is only a relative difference. There are many - not just two - different possible attitudes that a person can have regarding individuality.

    Also, I still urged caution when generalizing about RHP religions. Too many LHPers have made utterly absurd overgeneralizations about "the RHP."

    I should also mention here that the LHP and RHP, even in a Western sense, are not necessarily opposed to each other. Some people in both categories feel that there is an inherent opposition between the two, but others feel that LHP and RHP are just different, not opposed.

  11. Maybe we should just abandon these labels?
  12. Recently I've come to feel that the terms "Right Hand Path" and "Left Hand Path" are just not very useful, period.

    Calling oneself "LHP" was a meaningful act of defiance back in the days when nearly all occultists called themselves "RHP" and their enemies "LHP." However, once the LaVeyan Satanists started calling themselves "LHP", a lot of Pagans and occultists soon came to believe that it was "unbalanced" to think of oneself as "RHP." Others probably felt that calling oneself "RHP" just sounded too square, or something. In any case, most Pagans and occultists have stopped using that terminology. Hardly anyone calls oneself "RHP" anymore.

    There are both good reasons and some not-so-good reasons for discarding that terminology. For example, some Pagans rejected the idea of "Right Hand Path vs. Left Hand Path" on the alleged grounds that it's a Jewish/Christian/Islamic-based dualism. But, as we have seen, the terms "RHP" and "LHP" are derived from Tantrik Hinduism, not Christianity. Admittedly, the typical Western understanding of these terms is very different from the original Eastern understanding, at least in terms of the actual nature of the specific paths being referred to. But even the Western understanding of those terms is, in fact, much less of a JCI-centric dualism than is the Pagan-purists' own abhorrence of JCI-ness - especially when that abhorrence takes the form of a purist yet merely generic notion of non-JCI-ness. (See Is Satanism "Pagan"?) If the terms RHP and LHP truly represented a JCI-centric dualism, then only the JCI religions themselves would be classified as RHP, and all else would be LHP.

    Be that as it may, it does seem to me that the terms "RHP" and "LHP" aren't very useful anymore. Regardless of whether you identify as "RHP" or "LHP," the terminology encourages stereotyping of people and religions in the other category. And, since hardly anyone calls oneself "RHP" these days, calling yourself "LHP" just makes you sound like you're still fighting yesterday's battles.

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