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Unsettling new findings from out of left field


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Left Behind

Lefties have encountered prejudicial treatment for as long as history has been recorded, but it was by no means all negative treatment.

In the Middle Kingdom of the Egyptian Empire, circa 1850 BCE, the otherwise unremarkable pharaoh Anklitolat decreed that left-handers were the favorites of the goddess Hathor. For nearly two centuries following his reign, the hierarchy of the Egyptian priesthood would allow no one to belong who wasn't left-handed, and woe be it to any right-handed acolyte who tried to pass himself off as a lefty.

(Anklitolat's tomb was looted long before any reputable archeologists had an opportunity to study it. As the pharaoh's mummy was not available for examination, it will never be determined what Egyptologists had long suspected, that Anklitolat was himself left-handed.)

In an even more unusual example of left-handed favoritism, the Chinese, from the earliest dynasties to the 13th century CE, thought of lefties as harbingers of good luck and fortune. They were often invited into the households of emperors and treated like family. Rare was the Chinese aristocrat who didn't have a left-hander near, whether it be at a formal dinner or simply while walking in the gardens, as a balancing factor to his own right-handed twichi.

Unfortunately, the Mongol invaders under Jenghiz Khan had a different view, considering lefties to be bad luck and even carriers of evil. Until well after the rule of Kublai Khan, Chinese parents would hack off the offending arms of their left-handed children in order to spare them a more gruesome fate if discovered by the occupying Mongols.

More often than not, being left-handed was associated with negative aspects of the human condition. The Latin sinistra/sinistrum originally meant simply "left." But over time, the definition came to include everything from "unlucky" to "nefarious"--sinister.

No one can tell us whether the French gauche began as the word for "left" or the word for "boorish." We only know that it now serves as both. In Scandinavia and Northern Europe, the concept of left took on associations ranging from "ill fortuned" to "back-stabbing" and "scoundrel." The Spanish tener dos pies izquierdos is where we get "two left feet," an expression to convey clumsiness, ineptitude and, in some of the more provincial areas, deviancy.

At various times in various places, disease, incompetence, homosexuality, criminal behavior, witchcraft and even Satanism were attributed to the left-handed among the population. Whenever the Spanish Inquisition descended upon a community, one of the first tests the judges would administer to a suspected individual would be to unexpectedly throw him (or her) a small stone--perhaps an egg--just to see which hand he used to catch it. As you can imagine, if the subject used his left hand out of natural reflex, he was in for some considerably harsher prosecution.

Among the Slavic peoples in Poland, Russia and even parts of what is now Eastern Germany, the left-handers were often exiled from rural towns and villages, forced either to flee to larger cities in hopes their "curse" would not be noticed, or to wander the countryside and scrounge what they might to survive. In regions around the Baltic coast, these r├╝ckwarts menchen ("backwards people") would band together in their own makeshift communities, built on salt marshes, unarable lands, barren wind-swept hilltops--any place no one else wanted. These squatters' settlements came to be known as lewy-tuwens, lewy being the Polish word for "left" and tuwens meaning "villages."

Across most of the Middle East, the left hand came to represent filth and corruption, as the right hand was used for eating and making physical contact with others, while the left has traditionally been reserved for those unpleasant duties of toilet hygiene. Even the Bible carried a message of disparagement for left-handers: "And He shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats. And He shall set the sheep on his right, but the goats on his left." (Matthew 25:33)

Long into the 19th century, in Protestant countries of Europe, Roman Catholics were called "left-footers," a slur that one suspects Sister Caroline McMoore in Baton Rouge was not aware of.