The right-hand man. What does this mean to you? The man who sits at the right hand of a king or other powerful leader, the man who is next in power? Or perhaps the right-hand man is the partner-in-crime or the best friend? Whatever the case, the right hand holds an important, symbolic function in Western culture.
Losing a Right Hand – Mythology
In Norse mythology, as I’ve written about in another blog, the war god Tyr sacrifices his right hand when the gods need to bind the wolf Fenrir with chains. Fenrir, not trusting the gods, demands one of them to put their hand in his mouth. Tyr volunteers and when the gods finally subdue and bind Fenrir, he bites down on Tyr’s hand, severing it.
Tyr is not the only god or character to lose his right hand. The severing of the right hand happens in other stories in Western culture.
In Celtic mythology, Nuada the Silver Hand was the first king of the Irish gods known as the Tuatha de Danann. He led his people to Ireland and fought against the ancient gods, the Fomorians, who were already living there. Nuada was a fair and just king. In the First Battle of Moytura against another race of god-like beings, the Firbolg, Nuada’s right hand was severed from his body. By law, the king had to be fully intact, so Nuada could no longer rule. Being a just king, Nuada ceded rule to another. In the meantime, the smiths Dian Cecht and Creidhne created a new hand for Nuada, one made from silver that moved as well as a real hand. Nuada’s successor as king was a tyrant, so with his new working right hand, Nuada took over power again. He ruled for many more years until he was defeated in battle by Balor of the Evil Eye.
Losing a Right-Hand in Popular Culture – Star Wars
One of the most popular stories in which a character loses a right hand is The Empire Strikes Back. During the famous lightsaber duel (the one in which Darth Vader makes his big reveal about Luke’s parentage), Darth Vader cuts off Luke Skywalker’s right hand. This seems to be a common tactic with Jedi, to slice off the arm that holds the lightsaber–it happens in A New Hope when Obi-Wan Kenobi severs the arm of the alien who attacked Luke in the cantina. By taking away an opponent’s hand, you take away his ability to harm you with his sword, or lightsaber. Once Darth Vader slices off Luke’s right hand, Luke’s weapon falls away and he is at Darth Vader’s mercy. At this point, Luke can’t fight back and must find another way out of the conflict.
Darth Vader also had his right hand cut off–twice! The first time Obi-Wan Kenobi cut it off during the lightsaber fight at the end of Revenge of the Sith in which Obi-Wan and Anakin Skywalker fight over Anakin’s turn to the dark side of the Force. The second time is when Darth Vader fights with Luke Skywalker at the end of Return of the Jedi. This time Luke has Vader at his mercy and cuts off his right hand when he’s in a rage and beats Vader to his knees. This moment is a poignant one for Luke; at this moment he recognizes he’s following the same dark-side path that Darth Vader, his father, traveled down. Seeing the severed hand of his father, Luke looks at his own hand. He sees the story being played out again, only with him falling prey to the dark side of the Force. Luke tosses his lightsaber aside and refuses to do any more harm to Vader–an act of mercy. Once Luke refuses to fight, he gains his true power.
Both Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader have new hands made after losing their human one. Star Wars being a movie set in the future in outer space, their hands are robotic, made of wires instead of precious metal, like silver.
Losing a Right Hand in Popular Culture – Harry Potter
The Harry Potter series has its own right-hand sacrifice. At the end of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, when Harry has been delivered to the graveyard by the portkey, he meets Voldemort and Peter Pettigrew (Wormtail). Voldemort has created a potion so he can gain back his corporeal body. To do such dark magic, Voldemort needs a powerful sacrifice, and he demands Wormtail’s right hand. This is the hand in which Wormtail holds his wand, much like a warrior uses his right hand to wield his weapon, and it is a great sacrifice. After Voldemort takes Wormtail’s hand, he replaces it with a silver hand.
Silver is used frequently in the Harry Potter world and seems to signify magic–the kids use silver knives to cut potion ingredients, patronuses are silvery creatures, the liquid in the pensieve is silver, Professor Trelawney has a silvery ladder leading up to her classroom, and there are many other examples. Wormtail’s silver hand also harkens back to the Celtic mythology story of Nuada of the Silver Hand.
Losing a Right Hand in Popular Culture – Game of Thrones
In the Game of Thrones show, or Song of Ice and Fire if you read the books, Jaime Lannister is a famous knight, renowned for his prowess on the field of battle or in a fight. He is one of the Kingsguard, an elite group of knights who protect the king. During the turmoil in the aftermath of a king’s death, Jaime is captured by enemies. His captors chop off his right hand. After this, Jaime falls into a deep depression because without his ability to wield a sword, he feels he is nothing. Everything he believed he was has been destroyed along with loss of his hand. Jaime eventually escapes captivity and returns to his family, and they have a new hand made for him. This hand is made of gold, a symbol of the Lannisters immense wealth and power. Jaime also learns how to fight with his left hand, something Nuada the Silver Hand, Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader never had to do.
The Significance of the Severing
The loss of a hand carries great significance in stories, especially the ones from warrior cultures, whether they are the cultures of the ancient Celtic, Norse, or the Game of Thrones world. A warrior’s right hand is his sword hand, the hand he uses to fight, to protect himself and others, and even, as is the case with Nuada, to demonstrate his worthiness to be king. As seen with Jaime Lannister’s reaction, the loss of a right hand can destroy a warrior’s sense of self and his will to live.
If the person who loses the right hand is the hero of the story, loss also provides a chance to show that he can overcome a huge obstacle and still persevere. In all of the above references, the man who lost his right hand overcame that hardship. Tyr continued to be the war god, and Nuada returned as king once he had a new silver hand. In the final duel between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, it is the recognition that Luke and Darth Vader are linked by this loss of the right hand that stops Luke from going down a dark path and killing his own father. Darth Vader then destroys the evil Emperor, thus returning balance to the Force. Wormtail ultimately aids Harry Potter, and Jaime Lannister overcomes his loss and learns to fight again in a new way.
There are other stories of a character losing a right hand, like Ash Williams from the Evil Dead movie series, but you can see how it is an important element in story telling. The next time you read a story or watch a movie or TV show, notice if any character loses a limb and think about what that might symbolize!
Or you can look at our regular rituals, like how during a wedding when the bridal party is facing toward the altar, the groomsmen are all standing to the groom’s right, with his best man at his … you got it … right-hand side. The significance and symbolism of the right-hand man is everywhere in Western culture if you look for it.