With the paper “La prééminence de la main droite. Étude sur la polarité religieuse” (1909) Robert Hertz was the first anthropologist to assert that in western tradition the right hand (and the right side of the body) enjoys a superiority compared to the left, which is strongly supported and guaranteed by sanctions. On the contrary, the left hand suffers a sort of interdiction that makes it virtually unusable. For Hertz “the preference of the right hand with respect to the left does not depend on anatomical or physiological factors, but it is a cultural trait that is achieved through learning “.
The right or left part (of the body, of the ceremonial space, horizon, etc.) as the above and below, are anthropological, cultural and cosmological categories. Every human culture conceives and divides physical space according to oppositional and bipolar principles which corresponds – according to Hertz – an ancestral opposition between the sacred and the profane. In function of this pre-judice, which is also found in the most ancient languages, the right hand was cultivated, trained to accomplish all the important tasks in any field of man’s life; on the contrary the left has been intentionally disregarded, kept completely inactive, methodically hindered in its development.
Decorated vase of the Koros Culture, 5500 bce (from Raczky, 2009). A human figure is placed in a space covered by numerous cupmarks inside two zigzagging vertical elements. M. Gimbutas interpreted the zigzagging motif as a symbol linked to water, while R. Dufrenne thinks it’s a Vedic symbol of lightning, an attribute of the atmospheric god Indra. The human figure is portrayed in the gestural posture of the dervish dancer, the right arm bent upwards, the left downwards. if we think that the hand turned upwards is the right hand, as in the case of the dervish gesture, the anthropomorph applied to the vase is facing outwards.
The most immediate figurative document is the decorated human figure on a vase of the Koros culture (5th millennium bce). The sense of this posture is made clear by the dance of the Whirling Dervishes, during which each dancer extends the arms horizontally outwards, with the palm of the right hand turned upwards and the left one downwards.
The gestural pose of the dervish is assumed also by the Thai Buddha calling for rain.
Among many ancient cultures to the right side is associated the idea of life, to the left death; the right represents the high, the superior world, the sky, while the left is related to the underworld and the earth. Because man’s position in space is neither indifferent nor arbitrary, also the human body cannot escape the law of polarity to which all things of the world must necessarily be subjected.