Recently, in private correspondence, I had occassion to mention that I followed a "Left Hand Path." This statement was based on years of self-identity, but the resulting conversation (and the question "how do you define 'left hand path?'") made me realize that it was given more out of habit than anything else. In order to answer the question forthrightly, I did a lot of thinking and a little research--and now you can enjoy (or detest, at your option) the results of my self-evaluation.
Historically speaking, the earliest references that I've heard using the phrase "Left Hand Path" refered to Qabalists. Qabablah was, originally, the attempt to understand YHVH's creation by discovering the secrets contained in his holy books. A system was developed whereby profound and hidden connections between seemingly unrelated words could be discovered, catalogued and utilized. The aim of Qabalah was to gain a more perfect understanding of both the physical and spiritual nature of YHVH's creation, and thus YHVH "him"self, in an attempt to find "union with God." However, some Qabalist became enamoured of the power that could be attained through a greater understand of God and his processes, and instead of using Qabalah for purely spiritual aims began using the knowledge for personal gain. Both were on a holy path, but one followed it with honour while the other did not. The latter was said to follow a "Left Hand Path." It was considered inevitable that the path would lead to God, but the route that individual chose was circuitous at best...
With the (at least nominal) conversions of many Jews in the Medieval Ages, Qabalah passed into the realm of Christian mystics and magicians. With it came many terms. As magic evolved over the centuries, many terms have come down through the ages--some with their meanings intact, some with their meanings changed subtly (or radically), and some falling into the wide range between. The occult revival of the '60's (which began in the late '40's to mid-'50's) brought about the widespread use of the term "Left Hand Path," but did so in such a way that if you were to ask ten different people today what the term meant, you'd get at least eight different answers (and probably 12 or more ;). In my attempt to answer the question "How do you define 'Left Hand Path?'," I took into account the historical meanings as well as all the nuances abounding in the modern usages, and I believe that I may have arrived at a suitable "average" of what is generally meant by the phrase today.
In the occult revival of the '60's, it was considered wrong to pass judgement on others. A "new" ideal of tolerance was being embraced in which people expected their religious choices to be honoured, and so they were "duty-bound" to respect the choices of others. This became problematic, however, when a facet of the occult revival became too public to ignore--the very prejudices Wiccans (and other neopagans) were trying to eliminate came to the forefront with the emergence of self-proclaimed witches who actually did recite the Lord's Prayer backwards and desecrate Christian symbols. Then there were the Odinists who advocated "racial purity." And, of course, the self-proclaimed Satanists who put themselves in the "pagan" catagory by denying the validity of Christianity but who still insisted on acknowledging "Satan" in some form or other.
The problem with the witches was that, save for the mocking of Christian ritual, they followed all the forms and worshipped the deities--they claimed their rituals mocking Christianity were merely magical acts designed to weaken the patriarchal strangle-hold Christianity held on the rest of society. The problem with the previously mentioned Odinists was that they did follow the Asatru religion, they simply (and repugnantly) magnified the pre-Christian "nordic" belief that the Norse were superior to all other peoples (a belief also held by the Romans, the Greeks, et al; but that is, for purposes of this conversation, beside the point). And the problem with the Satanists was that both Christians and the Satanists themselves insisted on including them in the neopagan catagory. Neopagans couldn't very well resort to the very behaviour they were trying to eradicate in the Christians and simply resort to calling them "evil," but they also could not advance their cause of popular acceptance by embracing them. Something had to be done...
And so the phrase "Left Hand Path" was adopted. It was used to describe any path that had (for various reasons) to be accepted as valid, but that needed (for any reason) to be seperated from those advocating universal peace and love and a commonly recognized moral uprightness.
As time wore on, other paths started to develop. Individualistic, they were a product of their times--they still took to the moral high ground, but their ethical standards were situational and their trappings were dark. They rejected both what they saw as the inherent hypocrisy of the '60's neopagans (how can you claim to follow a religion based in nature and yet reject the "law of the jungle?") and what they saw as the inherent hypocrisy of the "black religions" (how can you claim that you are a god and yet hang on every whim of your "high priest?"). In sociological terms, they rejected both unconditional altruism and unabashed greed and focused on enlightened self-interest. They didn't fit in with the "good" guys, and the didn't fit in with the "bad" guys. They called themselves "grey," and they named their path 'left hand.' You see, many of them had gone back and studied the source material that formed the basis of other paths, and they discovered that the phrase "Left Hand Path" originally refered to a path whose goal was salvation but whose direction was not necessarily that of the commonly accepted mainstream.
And, too, there were those people who so feared the suggestion of evil that they labelled anything that didn't specifically call for unconditional and universal love and good-will "Left Hand" as well as those people whose fascination with the macabre did not go to the level of calling themselves "evil," but did require that they suggest it in any way they could.
By the mid-eighties, "Left Hand Path" was used to mean anything from Wiccans who focused on the darker aspects of the Goddess to Ceremonial Magicians who didn't practice a religion to anyone seen as an embodiment of "evil." The phrase was meaningless without a context, and nearly everyone's context differed to some extent.
And now we find ourselves in the here and now. Today there are a great many definitions in flux. Words and phrases that once had specific and definitive meanings are now used by some as accusatory while at the same time being embraced by others either out of spite or for lack of a more accurate description. The difference between Black Magic and White Magic is no longer simply the difference between good and evil, now there are infinite shades of grey and a veritable rainbow of colours. The difference between High Magic and Low Magic is no longer simply the difference between summoning angelic or demonic forces and "hedge wizardry" or witchcraft, now there could be entire books written just to list the various definitions people have applied to them. And, of course, there are two intermingled but distinct areas in which the terms may be applied. Not all neopagans perform magic, and not all people who study magic are religious. What constitutes a Left Hand Path to the ceremonial magician depends almost entirely upon how they approach magic, while a neopagan Left Hand Path may not involve magic at all...
So what can we distill from these often incoherent ramblings? Basically that there needs to be a minimum of two definitions, or at least a two-part definition, to cover the the two extremes of application. My suggestion is fairly simple, is based on historical meanings as well as the common threads of modern usage, and requires no subjective context.
A Left Hand Path is:
1) Magically speaking, one in which the practitioner follows neither deity nor pantheon, relying instead on a personal compass and engaging such entities and energies as is personally determined to be expedient in the pursuit of hir goals and/or
2) Religiously speaking, one in which the practioner follows an "established" religion, but focuses either on a "non-standard" deity (in the case of a pantheon) or a "non-standard" path within the accepted framework.
Examples of the former would be Thelemites, Chaos Magicians, followers of Spare's Zos Kia Cultus--in fact, the majority of Ceremonial Magicians today (the most obvious exception to this would be Christian Ceremonial Magicians who see their magical practices as an extention of their religion, of which there are a significant number). Examples of the latter would be the Asatru who takes/is chosen by Loki as patron, the Wiccan who focuses on Kali, or the Christian who recognizes the fact that Jesus had to be betrayed for His sacrifice to be meaningful and sees Judas as the only Apostle who had the courage to accept villification and possible damnation so that Jesus could become the Christ...
So. It was my goal to be as straightfoward and objective as possible without seeming derogatory or inflammatory. Human nature being what it is, and my tendency to misstate myself being what it is, I am sure I have offended someone at some point. As hard as it is to believe, this does not represent the entirety of my self-exploration on the subject, so there is a high probablity that my conclusion does not seem to logically follow from what I have presented, whether through actual contradiction or simply because I left something out. Too, there is the certainty that someone disagrees with some (or all) of the points presented here so much that they just have to let me know.
If I have offended anyone, I apologize, but please feel free to let me know. If there is something that needs clarification, or simply further explanation, please feel free to ask. If you disagree with some point so much that you just have to say something about it, please feel free to do so. All I ask is that you do so on the list (firstname.lastname@example.org) so that others that may have the same reservations, questions and/or arguments may join in if they wish... And if you are not already a member of the list, please take this opportunity to join--if nothing else it gives you the chance to vent at me publically ;>