excerpted from Thom Metzger’s new book, Hakim Bey, Real and Unreal

Hakim Bey named me the “Grand Metropolitan of the Burnt Over District, i.e.: the holy lands of upstate NY.” He concluded his official declaration of appointment by stating that “We feel sure that Moorish Orthodoxy will thrive upon such mantic soil.”

He captured the nature of the Burnt Over District in an apt two-word phrase: “mantic soil.” These are indeed holy lands. But much more so this place is mantic (which means having the power of divination or prophesy.) And soil? Yes, I inhabit an actual landscape, not a mere political designation with meaningless boundaries.

The Burnt Over District comprises the widest and easiest way through the great Appalachian barrier, which stretches from Labrador all the way to Sand Mountain in Alabama. Since the first landing of white invaders, the Appalachians acted as a gigantic containing wall, holding land-hungry Europeans on the east coast of the continent. In the early 1800s, my region was the prime path to the vastness of the great plains. Here, the Iroquois saw their land as a great longhouse. At one end—my end—were the Seneca, keepers of the western door. On the other side of the state were the Mohawk, keepers of the eastern door. Once the Iroquois were crushed, the great white migration could flood westward. By the time the southern slave-holders’ revolt had been put down, the region had become just a place to pass through, a zone where only a faint whiff of spiritual smoke could be detected.

Still, there are a few of us who refuse to forget what happened here. With the appearance of the Public Universal Friend and her followers (in 1790), and for about a hundred years after, more spiritual wildness flourished here than any place in the western hemisphere. New religions were born—most notably Mormonism and spiritualism. Shakers, Fourierists, and end-time Jews settled here, though sadly vanished. German Pietists came, expecting the thousand year reign of Jesus, but eventually dissolved into the landscape of normalcy. Apocalyptic manias swept up thousands. It was a time of portents and prophesies. The signs were unmistakable: a cholera epidemic, showers of meteors, rings around the sun and crosses seen in the sky. Halley’s comet flashed across the heavens in 1835 and the so-called Great Comet in 1843 was widely interpreted as a portent of the end. The Millerites gathered in joyous expectation of Christ’s return.

The ancients stared up at the stars and saw heroes, gods and monsters in the night sky. It’s far easier for me to find my mythic emblems on paper, rather than in the far cosmos. So, with a pen and some colored markers, I converted a standard travel map into an esoteric document. Doing magic to maps, as Hakim Bey claimed, can change the real landscape. The map is not the territory – and yet it is.

First I drew a red circle on the seven major locations that Carl Carmer noted in his book on the Burnt Over District: Lily Dale, Jerusalem, Rochester, Hill Cumorah, Hydesville, Oneida and Watervliet. Then I marked my own more private arcane sites, making dots on the villages where Charles Finney preached in his explosion of revivalist zeal. I’ve journeyed to all of these villages: Adams (where he had his soul-rending conversion), Antwerp, Gouvernor. He also preached in even smaller hamlets that barely exist now: Evans Mills, DeKalb, Westernville, Theresa. In Rochester he found his Armegeddon, the spirit of God possessing him to make his wildest revivalist stand here.

Each daubed with a crimson splotch, these places make a cartographer’s constellation, not stars in the sky, but bright spots where the early evangelical fervors burned. If I squint, I can make my hand-drawn pattern laid over New York State resemble an eagle with outstretched wings. But someone else might see a tree with widespread branches, or a dissolving mushroom cloud.    

I’m aware that even the most exhaustive map leaves out much that is crucial. Blow up the scale until you see individual houses and barns, ruined churches and washed-out one lane roads, and still the map is incomplete. This makes the maps all the more enchanting, each one telling a different story.

The word “geography” once had allure, fascination, magic. There was a time when maps were not merely simplified pictures of place, but actual keys to opening up the secrets of those places. They were, in short, amulets. And those who possessed these sorcerous charts, and knew how to use them for occult purposes, had true power. They are all, even the most banal, imbued with power. All maps, in short, are treasure maps, even without X-marks-the-spot or a dream of buried gold.

I read a map as I would read a metaphysical mystery story. Murder doesn’t interest me, nor do elaborate criminal capers. I have no interest in human cruelty or mere greed, in the violence of stupidity and the stupidity of violence. A map, on the other hand, shows me something far more intriguing than modern savages killing each other or stealing each others’ glittering trash. Where? Of course that question is made manifest the map. But also how and when? And sometimes why?

I use the word “metaphysical” in the sense of transcendence, beyond so-called objective reality. Something wondrous strange — a confluence of mysteries — happened in this land. It could be argued that it’s just that the miracle of my birth occurred here. It’s likely I will die here too and my ashes will be scattered in Mount Hope Cemetery among my ancestors, within sight of the hospital where I was born. This is the place, my place, and that’s enough to make it mantic. Everyone who lives an entire lifetime in one landscape, and spends countless hours immersed in the past there, might claim the same privileged status for their locale.    

I read a map as a fortuneteller reads fate in a palm. Secrets of the past and future lie there, on the crowded page full of tiny names (both banal and weird), colored squiggles, and cryptic symbols. Roads, man-made rivers, railroads (both well used and abandoned): these are the lines in a great geographical palm, to be followed, studied, and interpreted.       

Printed on cheap paper, frayed on the edges and weakened at the seams, made to be consulted and then discarded, tourism maps are the perfect form of ephemera. Like the seven inch 45 rpm single, or twenty-five cent paperbacks, these maps were made to be used a few times and then tossed out. Those that survive, especially those well-worn, acquire a certain value — though seldom in a monetary sense.    

Decades ago I began marking on an ordinary road map all the routes I’ve taken through New York State. Highlighted in brilliant yellow, my paths create a steadily exfoliating web, like the underground threads that make forests into a vast hidden fungal network. With the passage of time, more and more of the glowing threads appear, a golden web superimposed on the state.

First I filled in the main routes, the standard paths to places I’ve been a hundred times. Over the years though, I’ve taken increasingly obscure roads, choosing to travel in a seemingly random manner, losing myself and finding myself again on the map. Driving with little idea where I was, I often discovered hidden delights. A full-scale concrete brontosaurus in a farmer’s front yard. A Tyrolean restaurant which seemed to have been abandoned in a hurry. The Seneca Torture Tree and its commomerative wayside shrine.

I’ve kept the map for decades, opening it carefully each time to add my inch or two of newly-broken golden terrain. Connect the dots, fill in this little loop of light gray (a local road) or that thicker red line (a county highway), this famous cult site, that totally obscure place where an act of American sorcery had occurred. The map is a way of organizing memory. Yes, I’ve been there, and there, and there. I count it as evidence, testimony below the level of reason. The places are mine if I’ve passed through them. The details, the actual textures of the places, are more real if I’ve recorded my fleeting presence there.

One particularly dense and luminous web is in the Hudson Valley / Catskill region, marking all the trips I’ve taken, exploring the misty past and imaginal future with Hakim Bey.

In the mid-sixties, he was at the head of the Moorish Orthodox Church as they forayed undercover as a motorcycle club – the MOC-MC. Hakim Bey had a tricycle, he told me with nostalgic pride. No license, three wheels, and a powerful motor. Though implausible, yet I can picture him on a roaring triune road-god. Helmet decorated with Arabic symbols? Fez? Turban? Or wild hippie freak-flag hair whipping in the wind? Any of these are perfect.

Decades later, when the MOC was again extending its ectoplasmic tentacles into the soft white underbelly of New York State, I’d travel a half dozen hours and spend the weekend with Hakim Bey. Often on my trips downstate, we’d take a long afternoon jaunt, hunting up traces of what was or what might’ve been. In all but a few cases, we found no tottering ruins nor arcane hillside carvings to admire.

Sometimes it would merely be for good food: excellent pastrami in a tiny Catskill deli or a slab of fine pork from the Metzgerei (a German butcher shop between Woodstock and Saugerties.) The grand Hudson highlands, the Catskill peaks, abandoned canals, the hilltop estates of self-satisfied millionaire hippies, or haggling with a Persian rug merchant: we scouted and scoured Hakim Bey’s territory.

On one long hike in a state park, we came to the cave (really no more than a rock overhang) that might’ve been the hideout of a legendary bandit. This wasn’t entirely make-believe. We’d done our due diligence, poring over the meager records of 19th century renegadoes. From Washington Irving’s literary legends to the work of fine local historian Alf Evers, Hakim Bey read all he could to discover clues and remnants of past bizarreries.

e stopped at a town where witchcraft was said to haved flourished, poked around and found nothing of note. A number of other nearby towns had been flooded and were now fathoms below the reservoirs created to provide New York City with water. We peered into the depths, hoping to see a ghostly steeple poking up from the murk. Hakim Bey had a friend who oversaw in some obscure manner what remained of the Widow Jane iron mine. We went a short distance in. It was mostly flooded, a cave with a black lake or tarn, as Edgar Allen Poe would’ve called it. After my companions had left, I stood on the inky shore to sing a tune that had been current back when miners hewed out the living rock. “Do not I love thee dearest Lord? Behold my heart and see.” The echoes were wonderful, coming back to me like the voices of long-dead, long-forgotten men.

We climbed a steep hillside to reach the Prattsville Rocks — strange, huge, primitive carvings of a horse and a disembodied arm swinging a hammer, like a crude New York State Mt. Rushmore. We tracked down the Yellow Church, one of the only remnants of the Primitive (or so-called hardshell) Baptists in the region. The building was pleasant enough, but unremarkable, only used twice a year for religious gatherings. But it was of the same denomination that had preserved the much-beloved nineteenth century hymns in the Sacred Harp. I discovered, up front in the pulpit, a hymnal of the same lineage, and in that hymnal I found the song I’d sung in the Widow Jane mine.

His charm coming through in these situations, Hakim Bey would phone to find out if we could get inside a lost/found site, and the answer was often a sweet yes. There always seemed to be two old history ladies serving as genteel sentinels for places like this, and my guide was highly skilled at getting the goods from them, whether the key to a secret door or some tidbit of local lore. In this case, the history ladies told us we had to go out to the church’s cemetery to see their most notable gravestone. This took a bit of wandering, but we did indeed find the marker, which told of a boy “spurred to death by a rooster.”

Hakim Bey described our journeys as thaumaturgic pyschogeography — deliberate re-enchantment of landscape — archeo-emotional rescue of spatial meaning. But at his best he didn’t need grand-sounding tongue twisters. On these trips into backwards time and sideways space, the evidence we found was often scanty or of questionable authenticity. To truly enter these realms, we depended on something far more potent than academic theory or flavor-of-the month ideologies.

Great historians are sorcerers, summoning the past in the fleeting flicker of the present. I make no claims to such exalted status. And few readers, even his most devoted followers, would say that Hakim Bey was a great historian. Disdaining academic plodding, fast and loose with the so-called facts, he created, he conjured, the past rather than merely making tiresome piles of verifiable evidence. History, after all, is a game. The point is to be the knights — not pawns. We devoted ourselves to the history of images and ideas, which shape human society whether or not they are based in so-called historical reality.

Our trip to Pollepel Island discovered nothing new or useful for historians. If anything, my understanding of this place was more muddy, rather than clearer, after we’d wandered the ruins there. Yet our day was overripe with meaning, a mini-voyage into the mythic past.

If you take the train from western New York State to New York City (which I’ve done many times) it heads south at Albany and in Hakim Bey’s region follows the banks of the Hudson River for miles. Truly beautiful in places, this leg of the journey was always my favorite. Here, passengers like me passed the famous Highland features captured again and again by painters of the Hudson River School. Romanticized in art and literature, the region has none of the grandeur of the Rockies, or even the Adirondaks. Yet it has rich history — false, true, and neither.

The tracks run along the bed of the old New York Central, the railroad that did more than any to help create New York City. Here the Twentieth Century Limited, America’s most famously elegant and most celebrated passenger train, ran from 1902 until 1967. And as the cars roared past Pollepel Island, travelers peered out for a glimpse of crumbling walls and tottering towers.

Pollepel island lies about a quarter mile off the east bank of the Hudson. There are flats of shallow water both north and south, but a channel deep enough for steam tugs flows between the island and the mainland. What makes it noteworthy is Bannerman’s Castle – five stories tall, absurdly ornate, with columns, a grand stairway, crenelated turret tops and over a hundred windows, long open to the wind, rain, snow, and flocking birds.

Francis Bannerman grew rich as a war profiteer, beginning in 1865 when at age fourteen he bought up surplus arms at auction. He continued to trade in arms and ammunition for decades. He had been storing his vast stocks of war materiel in New York City, but a municipal law forced him to locate his arsenal elsewhere. He bought Pollepel island in 1900 and began the creation of his personal estate and ammo dump in 1905. He was still working on the castle at his death in 1918.

It was supposed to evoke the baronial estates of his native Scotland, but even in its early, intact, state, it looked more like an overloaded Italian wedding cake than the castle of a proud laird. In 1920 an explosion blew a twenty-five foot hole in one wall and brought down a turret. The family continued to use the castle as a storehouse until 1967, when they sold the island to the State of New York.

When we ventured to the island by boat, it was still relatively safe to wander the ruins. No guns, bayonets, artillery shells or helmets remained. Most had been sold or given away. The rest were picked over, decades before we arrived to explore the island. Huge slabs of concrete and stone had fallen, flooded cellars yawned beneath the tangles of weeds, the castle devolving back into the rock it was built on. My guide had done his reading in local lore, which added to the mystique of our jaunt.

Indians believed the island was haunted and wouldn’t spend the night here. Early Dutch mariners believed it was the northern boundary of the Dunderberg goblins’ domain. Sailors new to the Hudson were inoculated against the Heer of Dunderberg (a mythological thunder-lord) by being ducked into the river as the boats pass the island.

What did I learn that day? Not much. What did I feel? Some sadness (knowing that I’d never again wander the stony seven acre island), some delight in the power of the elements to grind down human follies, and some wonder. No goblins or ghosts remained, as far as I knew. But still the place was haunted. Obscure lore, charming tales, secret landscapes, tunnels to nowhere, abandoned buildings — these are all abodes of the still-living dead.

There’s no evidence that Francis Bannerman was anything but a vicious war profiteer with bad taste in architecture. Of his family, I learned nothing. Yet he did bequeath to me something wonderful to scan for as my train rumbled beneath the Hudson Highlands. And for one day, with Hakim Bey, I could wander the ruined memorial he’d raised to his own ego, his now long-forgotten importance.

Not long later, renting a boat, Hakim Bey and a friend went to Esopus Island for the day. They wanted to see if they could find any trace of Aleister Crowley, who had established a camp there decades before. Soon after their return, I’d gotten a call and a report on this day-trip into the imaginal realms.

Aleister Crowley — the so-called wickedest man in the world — had indeed traveled up the Hudson River from New York City to Esopus Island. But that had been during World War One. Traces? Was there anything left? Legend had it that he’d painted sigils and symbols on the cliff sides, so that people going up the river would be confronted by esoteric truths. “Let ‘Do What Thou Wilt’ Be the Whole of the Law” was Crowley’s most famous saying. Supposedly, river travelers would have experienced uncanny impulses and troubling dreams after passing Crowley’s island haunt.    

Though there were no great revelations, Hakim Bey’s pleasant little voyage had been worth the time, effort, and expense. He didn’t find much, but he claimed that he had a good idea where the sigils would’ve been. As was often the case, he had to imagine the evidence on his sojourns. Extraordinary events had happened there. But nature, and the ravages of civilization, had effaced any signs. He and I had to project what we knew (the story) onto what we saw (the ordinary places.)

Over the years, the name Aleister Crowley had come up in our conversations. Back in the ‘70s, Jimmy Page, of Led Zeppelin fame, had owned Equinox, an occult bookshop in London. The store didn’t last long, but Hakim Bey had gone there and admired the great collection of esoteric doo-dads and mystic tomes, especially the Crowleyite arcana. Jimmy hadn’t been around, and if he had been, I doubt Hakim Bey would’ve been impressed. It was Crowley who interested him, not the multi-millionaire rock star who dabbled in pop-cult Satanism.

Again visiting Hakim Bey, whose place was always crowded with tottering stacks of books, I found Colin Wilson’s The Occult. Gingerly easing it out of a four-foot high tower, I thumbed through and found the chapter called “The Beast Himself.” Wilson is said by some to have written too many books, too quickly. This one however, first published in 1971, is packed with fascinating ideas. His treatment of Crowley is neither hysterically negative nor fawning — the usual responses. He gives Crowley three dozen pages, focusing largely on the will, with which — he claims — Crowley was enormously endowed. Why did he need magic, Wilson asks, if the amazing effects are the product of human will? The answer is at the heart of this nearly 800-page book. The will cannot operate in a vacuum. “It needs a whole scaffolding of drama, of conviction, of purpose.” In short, it needs showmanship.

Wilson never fully defines the deep instinctive will that he claims is crucial to occult power. If he is right, though, what matters most is the force of attention and intention. But it needs a stage, a story, props and utterances, symbolic action — in other words, theater — to fully manifest. Wilson’s will is not mere desire: I want this, I covet that, I’m drawn, pulled, enslaved by attraction. He returns repeatedly to this central idea: “Occultism is not an attempt to draw aside the veil of the unknown, but simply the veil of banality that we call the present.” We live, most of us most of the time, in a trance. We forget, or ignore, the immense world of broader significance that stretches around us.

Sorcery is, according to Hakim Bey, a will-driven system of enhanced consciousness and the deployment of this non-ordinary awareness to bring about desired results in the apparent world. Or, as he said more than once, in far simpler terms: I demand marvelous secrets!

It seems a contradiction, but men of imaginative will (such as Crowley at the height of his powers) are intensely engaged in the real texture of the world. “Our normal more-or-less-bored state of everyday consciousness arises from the habit of devaluing the world. Instead of saying ‘How fascinating,’ we yawn.” Then we shuffle on to the next meaningless task or distraction. The opposite of this is magic.

I borrowed The Occult and started at the beginning, finished Wilson’s book and never returned it. With a nearly luminous alien-green cover, and with the subtitle “The Ultimate Book for Those Who Would Walk with the Gods,” it remains to this day on my shelves, side by side with The Great Beast, an early biography of Crowley, which reached a wide audience, from Jimmy Page to teenaged nobodies who were also caught in the occult web. Wanting to go to the sources, I ordered a copy long after it had been made irrelevant by other, much better, biographies.

My well-worn copy came in the mail, from the other side of the country. Inside was a pink sticky-note with this message: “Greetings from the upper left temple.” Below that was a number 7 inside a circle. “Upper left” on the map is Oregon or Washington, but to this day I have no idea which Moorish Orthodox adept had taken my order and packaged the book for mailing.

The Great Beast is full of magical gibberish, spells that Crowley supposedly used. Far more important to me was the photo that takes up most of the back cover. Once seen, the image is not soon — if ever — forgotten. Crowley stares directly at the viewer with a fierce gaze. It’s not evil, but confidence and concentration that I witnessed, as though he were still alive and looking at me, through me. The placement of the hands adds to the effect of the photo. He presses them to the sides of his face (palms back, thumbs cocked) not so much squeezing his face as framing it and focusing the psychic power he claimed to possess. He wears a black hat that on another man would look absurd, a soft triangle that works a visual rhythm with his hieratic hand gesture. On the front of the hat is the eye of Horus in a smaller triangle. This has been called his Third Eye, or the All-Seeing Eye on top of the Freemasonic pyramid. He doesn’t look malign in the picture, or dissolute. It’s power that comes through. I felt it the first time my eyes met his and I imitated the hand placement to stare back at him.

Heroin addict — cokehead — sexual predator — prodigal rich boy, then leech — at best a writer of mediocre ability (though deluded that he was in the same class as Shakespeare) — egomaniac supreme: Aleister Crowley was all of these. Any one of them describes an odious bore. Combined, they should make him ten times more repulsive and wretched. Yet he caught my eye (the photo), my interest (the satanic reputation), and my ambivalent admiration.

It wasn’t Crowley’s so-called wickedness that intrigued me. It was his shadowy mixture of success and failure, self-promotion and secrecy. He failed again and again. Though a brilliant mountaineer, he failed in his attempt on Kangchenjunga (third highest peak in the world.) His books reached only a small audience in his lifetime. His new religion had very few adherents, most of them mentally ill or alcoholic. He was chased out of his Abbey of Thelema and it stood abandoned for years. His claim to absurd aristocratic titles and his petty feuds with other occult adepts — these are the signs of a self-infatuated loser. He died a pathetic junkie. His evil — mostly peculiar sexual practices and bad writing is hardly to be feared or hated.

Then what is so fascinating about the man? Likely it’s simple and straightforward: he had power and power attracts. With no greatness of beauty, physical might, authority, wealth (after he’d squandered his inheritance), social capital, he still had the ability to influence and dominate others. Long dead, his presence is nonetheless still felt in the world, far more now than when he was alive.

Though never successful on the musical or theatrical stage, he had charisma, and that charisma lives on. He was a performer with the ability to utterly control an audience. His rites and ritual were on a small scale, at times private. Yet like many religious leaders, he had an overwhelming stage presence. With bizarre costumes, chants and spells, magical hand gestures, sacrifices (both real and symbolic) and special hats, he controlled others through drama.

Hakim Bey was never a follower of Crowley. The Great Beast died when the Boy-Bey was only one year old. As a young man, he recognized Crowley’s influence, but wasn’t pulled in by the legends of vileness and vicious behavior. Yet both magi have cult followings (most of their devotees possessing only a hazy understanding of their work.) Both traveled the world, gleaning esoteric knowledge. Both were execrated for the products of their sexual imaginations. Both saw magic as something far different than pop culture flimflam. Both knew the delights and despair associated with opium. Both possessed the uncanny ability to make a living without having a job. (Hakim Bey let me in on the secret of The Genghis Khan Diet For Success, a book he never wrote: horse blood and fermented mare’s milk.) Both used rites, sigils, arcane costumery, and created an air of secrecy around their work. And both had a mystique that was self-created: false names, secret societies, flamboyant headgear, and the alchemy of the word.

From the pages of Hakim Bey’s Chaos I heard an echo, or layering of echoes, that connects the two now-vanished magi. 

          Incense and crystal, dagger and sword, wand, robes, rum, cigars, candles, herbs like dried dreams – the virgin boy staring into a bowl of ink – wine and ganga, meat, yantras and gestures – rituals of pleasure, the garden of houris and sakis – the sorcerer climbs these snakes and ladders to a moment that it fully saturated with its own color.

image: “NY State Elevation Map with Parklands” by andyarthur is licensed under CC BY 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit

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