Halloween is approaching and thoughts turn to ghosts, witches, goblins and demons…popular images and costumes for this time of year. It is also the season when left-handers complain about the widespread tendency to associate evil and dark figures with the left side and admirable and heroic figures with the right side. For example, the devil may be depicted as left-handed while angels are shown as right-handed. Indeed, a 2013 study of 50 different languages found that the majority had positive associations for words for the right side while negative qualities were attached to the left-sided words.
Symbolic meanings of bad versus good are connected to the left and the right in many cultures. These symbolic associations extend back in history for thousands of years. I.C. McManus in his 2002 book, Right hand, left hand: The origins of asymmetry in brains, bodies, atoms and cultures, proposes a theory to explain these universal and longstanding connections. McManus argues that the positions of celestial bodies were tremendously important to ancient peoples. They monitored the phases of the moon and the position of the sun to an extent not done in modern times. For groups living in the far north, the sun rises in the east and swings south to set in the west. If one looks at the rising sun in the east and follows its movements during the day, it is always moving right or toward the right hand. This links the right hand to the path of the sun, the giver of light, warmth and life.
The compass directions are part of a circle in continuous motion moving from day into night and always turning to the right. The east and south are associated with the onset and continuation of light. West denotes sunset and the departure of the sun and north or night is the removal of the sun entirely. As the sun rises and circles to the right, a person facing east has the right hand on the side of light while the left hand is on the dark side. These symbolic connections are shown in this diagram outlining the rightward progress of the sun from day to night for a person in the center facing east.
In this theory, right and left are associated with the movements of the sun to the right in a clockwise direction. McManus points out, as supporting evidence for his theory, that there are cultural traditions favoring rotation in the clockwise direction. The Old English words of deasil and widdershins mean sunwise (clockwise) and counter-sun-wise (counterclockwise). It is unlucky or inappropriate to move widdershins in some situations. Waltzing couples, for example, turn mostly in a clockwise direction. The McManus theory associates left=bad, dark; right=good, light with the natural phenomenon of the rotation of the sun. However, this link may not be a comfort to left-handers whose preferred hand is always left on the dark side.
Rik Smits, a left-handed science journalist, points out occasional exceptions to the right=good, left=bad rule in his 2010 book,The puzzle of left-handedness. Ancient Chinese emperors and noblemen sat facing south when they held court. This position highlighted their connection to the sun. The direction of the rising sun, the east, was to their left. The left became a position of honor and military commanders often assumed a left-sided position when their chariots went into battle. Once again, a natural phenomenon, the position of the sun played a prominent role in assigning symbolic meanings to the left and right sides.