There is wide interpretation of left hand path and right hand path even in India and Tibet, where the terms originated. The way of the left hand (vama marga) generally denotes a path of knowledge where ritual and yoga is rendered effective and meaningful through devotion to the shakti or feminine power. Devotion to the shakti, and any spiritual path inclusive of sensory pleasure, is most often associated with tantra, though tantra only denotes method or practice (literally, ‘to weave’). The right hand way (dakshina) aspires to truth and purity (of mind) and is often associated with asceticism. Nonetheless, tantra or the left hand path may well include practices considered by the average person to be ascetic, since nothing is achieved without discipline. And likewise, the way of the right hand path may sometimes include heterodox methodology.
In the West, the misappropriation of these terms over the last century or so has resulted in confusion. Thus the left hand path is commonly thought to refer to black or ‘evil’ practices. The way of the right hand is associated with religious asceticism, repression and moral hypocrisy, especially by those for whom the term ‘left hand path’ is a means of self-identification. Aleister Crowley denounced the left hand path in his writings yet has frequently been accused of advocating the same. Dion Fortune followed suit, yet would have been scandalised if she had not kept some of her sexual practices secret even among her adepts. The confusion deepens when it is considered that there are now many followers of Crowley that proclaim they practice the left hand path of the occult, while those who continue the legacy of Fortune would have us know they are chaste adherents of the right hand path.
Thelema sprang directly from the ancient Egyptian starry wisdom cult of Thebes, from whence the oracular voices that sprang from the Stele of Revealing in Cairo, 1904. We shall therefore examine the left and right of the magick of old Egypt. The left hand path is frequently identified with heterodox practices that are sometimes condemned as ‘immoral’, so we shall begin with the Egyptian festival of the goddess Bastet, which took place in the Nile Delta region.
Left Hand Path: Way to Bubastis
According to E.A. Wallis Budge, April and May was the time of the festival of the cat goddess Bast or Bastet in ancient Egypt. The passing of the Sun from Taurus to Gemini is well figured where, in Gods of the Egyptians, Budge quotes a passage from the Greek traveller Herodotus, describing the festival of Bast. Herodotus recounts how the city of Bubastis was artificially raised in height, yet the island temple of Bast, which had stood there long before the city was built, could be seen from every part of the city as a “lofty and stately tower.”
Round about the tower is a wall, engraved with hieroglyphics and depictions of various beasts. The inner temple is enclosed by a high grove of cultivated trees, and in it is set up an image. The length of the temple is 220 yards each way. From the entrance of the temple Eastward, there is a fairly large causeway leading to the house of Hermes, 660 yards long and four acres broad, all of good stone. It is bordered on each side with tall trees.
Here is described a processional route along which the shrine containing the image of the solar-venusian Bast would be taken to the temple of Tahuti (or Thoth), which Herodotus identifies with the Greek god Hermes. A brief Qabalistic digression is necessary. Venus is the ruler of Taurus while Hermes-Mercury is Lord of the dual house of Gemini.
The glyph of Mercury is threefold, combining the symbols of both the Moon and Venus in one. Thus it is said of Hermes that he is ‘thrice greatest’, Trismegistus. The Moon, Mercury and Venus form the lowest triad on the Tree of Life, oft associated with the astral plane or Yetzirah. It is through this lower triad that the starry wisdom is communicated to the human mind. We shall see later how the spiritual fact concerning this function was told and retold in various myths, including the biblical one of how the Nephalim, a race of ‘giants’, were said to have been the progeny of angels who fell from the stars to mate with the daughters of earth and teach them magick and science.
The festivities on the Nile route to Bubastis took place on a grand scale. Celebrants were carried there in boats along the Nile. According to Herodotus they numbered 7000 men and women, for children were excluded. The reasons for the exclusion become apparent when it is described how Egyptian women would beat loudly upon drums, while others would shout ribald insults at the townsfolk that had gathered to watch from the river banks. Others among them would lift up their clothing, showing themselves naked. All of this was carried out in high spirits and in good humour. Once the celebrants arrived at Bubastis, the multitude set to the devotional rites with great solemnity. Lavish offerings were made, including costly grape wine, which was rather more than the average farm worker could afford in those times. In spite of the renowned Egyptian ribaldry and sense of fun, commentators have thought the ancient festivals to be ‘licentious’. In later times, when religion superseded the old ways, prurient zealots found such festivities so abominable that eventually they succeeded in getting them abolished altogether.
The Voice from the Deep
The feline Bast and lioness Sekhet were representative of Lower and Upper Egypt respectively. The ancient ways of such a bestial goddess, a sexually ambivalent creature of the night, exemplify the left hand path. Bast was frequently identified with Buto, the oracular cobra serpent. The famous Delphic oracle was undoubtedly a much later Greek edition of ancient Egyptian methods of obtaining an oracular ‘voice’ through the mediumship of priestesses, who possessed the secret knowledge of the snake, Hadit. In the context of the 17th path of Gemini, the Children of the Voice, the sacred vibration of the priestess is sent forth from Chokmah and Binah above the Abyss to inform the Intelligence of the Heart in Tiphereth.
In countless Egyptian hieroglyphics, cat or lion-headed deities are twinned, most notably in the aker or ‘lion-gate’. The gate is variously representative of the two ends of the year (equinoxes) or the entrance to and from the Egyptian underworld or duat.
The Egyptian hieroglyph for the sky has two peaks or horizons pointing upwards to show the day. When the peaks are pointing downward, it is a depiction of the night sky. In the underworld, everything is mirrored and in some cases even shown upside down or averse.
Artefact depicting three regions of the Duat or Underworld
a) The upper section of the artefact depicts souls travelling to the Great Neter who looks both ways (i.e., to the East and West horizons, yesterday and tomorrow).
b) The middle section portrays the four Apes who steer the sun boat of Ra. They are shown in their cosmic form, as star gods, and are generally associated with fire. They are paying homage to a dual figure of the ram-headed god of Mendes, otherwise Amen-Ra, who has four faces and an ornate crown. On each side Amen-Ra bears a threefold sceptre combining the Set-headed (was) sceptre of power, the Ankh of Life and Djed pillar of Mendes. The Djed is similar in meaning to the path of Samekh on the middle pillar of the Tree of Life and symbolises the spinal column as the passage for the inner fire of the soul. The cross ‘x’ is to show the threshold that must be passed by the Initiate.
c) The lower section is an inverse mirror for the constellations of heaven, as shown by the totem form of the sky-goddess Hathoor. This is the dreaming world or subconscious. Notably, the seated god with a bird’s tail feathers, and the serpent, are ithyphallic. Both male and female become tumescent when dreaming at night, as was well known to the ancients. Dreaming is the principle power of the gods. All power has been transferred to the underworld region (left hand, left eye).
Now ye shall know that the chosen priest and apostle of infinite space is the prince-priest the Beast; and in his woman called the Scarlet Woman is all power given.
The Egyptian Book of the Law, Liber AL vel Legis, I: 15
Orion: The Left and Right of it All
The left and right eyes of Ra are the moon and sun respectively. The moon is the mirror of the sun’s radiance, and the sinister jewel of the left hand path. According to the Emerald Tablet of Hermes:
That which is below is like unto that which is above, and that which is above corresponds to that which is below, to accomplish the miracle of the one essence … Its father is the sun, its mother the moon. The wind carried it in its womb, from the bosom of the earth it is nourished. It is the source of all works of wonder in the world. Its power is complete.
The flow of consciousness involves both projection and radiance (sun, the right eye) and absorption and reflection (moon, the left eye). The primary dual power of consciousness is objectivity and subjectivity. The goal of yoga is to achieve transcendence through uniting subject with object. Thus, the eye is made ‘single’. The way of knowledge (ynana yoga) is typified by the path of Gemini, to which is ascribed the letter zayin, the sword of division. Union, on the other hand, comes through the love of Nuit or Venus, which is the governance of Taurus, the Magus of the Eternal.
As we shall see, love under will or Thelema (Logos-Agape) is aptly imaged forth in nature and mythology by the constellation of Orion, which spans Taurus and Gemini, or Isis and the word of Thoth.
On the front side of the Stele of Revealing, the priest Ankh-af-na-khonsu mirrors the god Menthu, who embodies both Ra and Set-Typhon. The priest is called ‘Khonsu’ (sky-traveller) after the moon god. At Thebes, the home of the priest, Khonsu is the child of Mut and Amen-Ra. The priest makes the gesture of invocation and offering with his right hand, as he wishes to offer the god all that he is and can ever be, his whole self. The right hand is giving, as the sun gives light and life to the world. As the right hand is giving, the left hand receives. We cannot have one without the other. The act of giving contains receiving latent within it. The act of receiving has the seed of giving, latent. A true invocation is at the same time an offering, for only the whole self is a fit offering to the gods.
Egyptian gods and priests are frequently depicted with their left foot forward. The constellation of Orion the Hunter, known as Sah to the Egyptians, has his left foot forward in the sky. Orion is close to the constellations of Taurus and Gemini, and was known to the Babylonians as a herald or messenger as well as the guardian of land and boundaries. Orion is variously depicted as a god, giant, shepherd, walking bird or phoenix. The magical race of Nephalim mentioned in the biblical book of Genesis 6: 1–4 were in all probability children of Orion (Aramaic Niphelah). The mysterious genealogy is explained by Sumerian myths, which tell of wise Akkadians that survived the flood, or otherwise came ‘out of the sea’ (viz., the depths of inner space). Whether gods, demigods or priests of the Mercurial deep-sea god Enki, they taught knowledge of science and magick to the terrestrials.
The star that marks the left foot of Orion is Rigel, positioned at 17 degrees Gemini. Rigel is the brightest star in Orion and one of the seven brightest stars in the night sky. Rigel was very important in the ancient Egyptian scheme of things as it rises before Sirius, the heliacal rising of which marked the solar year. Pharaohs and priest-kings were considered to take the form of Sah upon death (the sahu), so the constellation was associated with resurrection and immortality.
The Left Eye of the Moon.
The meaning of the left eye, left hand, left foot, left side or profile became distorted over long ages of time. All that was considered feminine and ‘left’ was identified with the night or the underworld and was eventually demonised. Interpretation therefore requires careful discernment.
The feminine power of the left side, which is personified as the Egyptian Sekhet (or Shakti) was always honoured in ancient Egypt, though in later dynasties it was hidden. When Sekhet acts as Initiatrix, she takes the form of a lioness and kicks the person (or demon) with her left foot, as recounted in the Pyramid Texts. This has the effect of burning up everything inside them that is concerned with the poisons of the body and ego, the false king and tyrant over the soul.
Once the person is empty of falsehood and the way is thus prepared for illumination, Sekhet may fill the Initiate with her fire and light. In this way, the Thelemite with both feet firmly on the path is capable of transformation into an eternally living star. As it is put by Nuit in the Egyptian Book of the Law, whose manifest star is Sirius:
Every man and every woman is a star.
Liber AL vel Legis, I: 3
By the Qabalistic method introduced by Kenneth Grant, where the chapter and verse numbers of the book may be compounded, the verse equals 13, the number of the Priestess of the Silver Star. The star in question doubles as both moon and star, for the path of Kether, the ‘height’, signifies the Supreme Attainment. It is a path that may only be approached through the reflecting mirror of Da’ath, the ‘higher moon’ at the outer threshold of the planetary system. Thus, at the summit all ways meet, and the left hand path and right hand path cease to have meaning, as do all other conventions.
The intimacy of lunar and stellar relationships may easily be demonstrated Qabalistically. By conventional numeric values. IA ChNSV (sky-traveller the moon) yields 375. Dividing 375 by its factor of 5 (number of the ‘star’) results in 75, the number of NVIT. Thus the priest of Thelema is as the moon or sky-traveller. His star is that of Nuit, to whom he is guided through reflecting the radiance of Ra the sun god.
Is the Left Hand Path the Right Way to Follow?
In India and Tibet there has ever been a guru tradition. Initiation, if it comes, is passed directly from master to pupil. Sometimes the right way is left and the left way is right—it all depends, for the meaning differs according to the school of thought and the individual. While there does not appear to have been a guru tradition as such in ancient Egypt, the schools of thought (and so practices) were as diverse and numerous as the nome or earth locations down the length of the Nile. Likewise, individual teachers and practitioners could be counted as reeds strewn upon the surface of that great river, or as stars in the night sky.
While it may be convenient to classify all magical and spiritual practices as either ‘left hand path’ or ‘right hand path’, we must consider whether such arbitrary divisions draw us nearer to truth or lead us further away from it. Or perhaps even that—as is now the case in the technological age—such simplistic devices might blind us to the possibility that truth can even exist.
There is a modern development of the left hand path that is a far cry from the festivities of ancient Bubastis. Rational scientism has exerted its influence on esotericism to the extent that some will, in all sincerity, assert that nothing exists beyond the self. All else, they will say, is ‘impermanence’, nothing but dream. Such atomistic cults—for they posit a unitary intelligence as sole reality—invert the principle of Buddhist impermanence and at the same time translate the ‘one God’ of monotheism into a ‘Dark Lord’. In that, they hope to find an amplification of personal power as a means of gaining unlimited self-gratification. There is nothing very new about that. The technological, industrially driven age we have entered is fuelled by greed and selfishness. As a consequence, despair, alienation or otherwise sheer indifference is now commonplace. Amidst such a spiritual vacuum it should come as no surprise that some will worship at the altar of a tyrannical overlord whose monstrous, mocking image reflects the wish of that which Freud termed, the ‘infantile ego’.
1. Notably, the sage Ramakrishna never used the terms ‘left hand path’, ‘right hand path’. He practiced celibacy, through personal inclination, yet there is no evidence that he recommended this to his disciples as rule of thumb. While he wryly denounced those who merely desire sensual gratification, or that lust after ‘gold’ and temporal power, recorded anecdotes reveal that Ramakrishna was not at all orthodox and would consider almost anything that might lead to the goal of ultimate liberation.
2. See Magick Without Tears, Aleister Crowley, for one example.
3. “High standards are expected of an initiate of the Right Hand Path”, Magical Images and the Magical Imagination by Gareth Knight, pp. 71. [Skylight Press, 2012.]
4. Gods of the Egyptians Volume 1, pp. 449.
5. The Greek name Bubastis is derived from the ancient Egyptian per-bastet, ‘House of Bast’.
6. We have rendered the archaic Latin translation into modern English.
7. The Histories of Herodotus were translated from Greek into Latin and from there to other tongues. Some versions therefore give the Roman god Mercury as the equivalent of the Greek Hermes and Egyptian Thoth. Likewise, Diana is mentioned as the equivalent of the Greek goddess Artemis and Egyptian Isis or Hathoor.
8. Akkadia (Mesopotamia, Sumeria, etc.) is formed from ak-ka-d-w, which is etymologically related to the Egyptian term for a magical body (aka) achieving resurrection by passing through the underworld or starry duat.
© Oliver St. John 2018. This essay appears in the book, Babalon Unveiled! Thelemic Monographs [Ordo Astri].
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