Cover Photo: Gnostic Brooklyn by Hari  Kunzru

Gnostic Brooklyn

“I was walking home through Clinton Hill when I met a wizard.”

I was walking home through Clinton Hill when I met a wizard. He wore a conical straw hat and a cloak of many colors and was in the process of casting a spell, squatting down by the foundation stone of the Orient Temple, speaking an incantation and waving a burning twist of sage. He looked as if he’d stepped off the cover of a free jazz record from the early 1970s. As I stopped in front of him, he nodded to me, then carried on with his incantation. It seemed he did not want to be disturbed.

The Orient Temple is a scruffy-looking two-story brick building, coated in peeling red paint. Though it isn’t a grand or architecturally distinguished space, one can see why it would be attractive to a magician. The foundation stone bears the Masonic square and compasses, with the letter G in the center, standing either for God or Great Architect of the Universe, depending on who you ask. The Ancient Free and Accepted Masons who laid it are part of a tradition of African-American freemasonry that still thrives in this part of Brooklyn. The masons don’t seem to use the Orient Temple regularly. Once in a while I see them go in and out; despite belonging to an organization that confers titles like “Illustrious Grand Potentate” and “Patron of Nefertiti Court #1 to their members, they are solid-looking citizens with pressed trousers and shiny shoes.

The Orient Temple / Jon Dieringer

I grew up in London, where it has long been understood that there is a magical geography to the city. Writers trace it on the page. Walkers seek it out.  I began to wonder what mystical currents ran through Brooklyn. Where was I, gnostically speaking?

Draw a line northwest from that foundation stone, and you come to a much larger Masonic building, an imposing Babylonian edifice known as the Brooklyn Masonic Temple, built in 1907 and intended as a replica of King Solomon’s Temple. It’s a structure that, once you notice it, dominates its surroundings, more than holding its own against the assertive Gothic of the Queen of All Saints Church beside it. 

Brooklyn Masonic Temple / photo by  Beyond My Ken

From there it is clear where this Brooklyn ley line must proceed, to the neighborhood center of power, the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument in Fort Greene Park.  This is a crypt on a hill, containing twenty-two sarcophagi filled with the remains of some of the 11,500 American prisoners who died in British hulks moored on the East River during the Revolutionary War. The crypt is marked by a Doric column, 143 feet tall, topped by a bronze lantern.  It is a high place, and since ancient times, high places have held both strategic and symbolic power.

The Prison Ship Martyrs Monument

Once I had slipped into thinking in these terms, the borough revealed another version of itself. The walk with the stroller, past the imprecisely noticed buildings, to the park where the boy could kick a ball around, took on a sinister tone. Downtown, it was suddenly clear, was dominated by a giant phallus, the Williamsburgh Savings Bank with its absurd little Romanesque dome on top of its modernist skyscraper shaft.

Williamsburgh Savings Bank

Everyone seemed to go about their days stoically trying to ignore this enormous lingam, but all that repressed libidinal energy had to be spent somewhere. What orgiastic rites of Pan were being conducted at night in the bushes in Prospect Park? What offerings were dropped into the Gowanus Canal?

A philosopher and theorist of magic called Eugene Thacker sent me a few pages from the letters of H.P. Lovecraft. On a wintry morning, I sat on a bench in Fort Greene Park, under the shadow of the monument, and read how, in May 1925, this penniless writer of magazine horror stories spent “a solitary open-air day” in that very place. “There, on a bench against a secluded verdant slope, I read continuously all day; stopping only at twilight . . .Lovecraft was surely aware of the presence of the dead at his back, absorbed though he was in a volume of tales by the Victorian sensation writer Edward Bulwer-Lytton, bought “for ten cents!” on Book Row on Fourth Avenue in Manhattan. The first yarn he mentions is “Zanoni,” the tale of a man seduced by the mystery of the Rosicrucians. “Who but a Rosicrucian could explain the Rosicrucian mysteries! And can you imagine that any members of that sect, the most jealous of all secret societies, would themselves lift the veil that hides the Isis of their wisdom from the world?” The Isis of their wisdom, hidden knowledge, gnosis . . . the secret hidden in plain sight in Fort Greene park is the unlit lantern, the reminder that this riverbank was once the site of concentration camps, of hastily dug mass graves.

I arranged to meet Thacker and walk in Green-Wood cemetery, which kept appearing in my researches as a place where the mysteries of Brooklyn were celebrated. I had heard stories about processions for the Voodoo lwa Guédé Nibo, tattooed occultists jumping the fence to search for the grave of the spirit medium Margaret Fox. The West African driver laughed nervously as we got out of his car, two austere-looking men with nothing better to do on a weekday than visit the dead. “You have to give me five stars,” he said, “for bringing you here.”

Thacker seemed troubled. He was dressed all in black and talked about Renaissance grimoires and the use of the internet for ritual. We walked up a hill, past plinths and columns topped with drapery, carved folds of cloth hiding urns, obelisks, angels: representations of the unseen. Eventually we came to the tomb of the musician and mystical Egyptologist Albert Ross Parsons, author of New Light from the Great Pyramid: the astronomico-geographical system of the ancients recovered and applied to the elucidation of history, ceremony, symbolism, and religion, with an exposition of the evolution from the prehistoric, objective, scientific religion of Adam Kadmon, the macrocosm, of the historic, subjective, spiritual religion of Christ Jesus, the microcosm.

Parsons had had himself interred in a pyramid, of course. He was guarded by both a sphinx and images of Jesus and Mary. On the bronze door was an image of Christ crucified, emanating from an astrological sun wheel.

The tomb of Albert Ross Parsons

‘Do we knock?’ asked Thacker.  Neither of us laughed.

Parsons, with his eccentric monument and turgid synthesis of religions, seemed to me a dead end, until I was confronted on the way home by a poster of Sun Ra, in full Pharaonic garb, advertising a film festival at BAM. Parsons was part of a global wave of interest in Ancient Egypt that followed the excavation of the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922. In Brooklyn that wave has never really died down. Once you start looking, representations of Egypt are everywhere, zipping around as a sort of countercultural energy. Hawks and sun disks and animal-headed deities are glimpsed in tattoos and street art, in vitrines in the Brooklyn museum. It is both serious and casually cosmic: an Afrocentric history lesson to ward off the psychic wound of slavery; the Eye of Horus scrawled on the jacket of the art school punk holding up an oil painting on the subway and asking for “cash, a crit or a smile.”

On another bitterly cold day, I huddled inside my coat on a windswept elevated platform in Bushwick. My magician contact was late and I stared idly down at the street, crossed by a tangle of power lines. At last he arrived, wearing an army jacket and a metal pin bearing an esoteric cross that signified his membership of Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth, a magical organization founded by a group of British performance artists and industrial musicians in the 1980s. He was serious and bespectacled, speaking in precise, technical language about his belief in ritual as a tool to induce certain unusual psychological states. He bore a marked resemblance to photographs I had seen of H.P. Lovecraft.

Together, we walked down Myrtle Avenue to a busy intersection. Though the sun was bright, the cold was intense, seeping through my coat, permeating my bones. Just under the elevated tracks was a little triangle of public space, too small to be dignified as a park, an iron-railed enclosure with some bushes and a monument to the Bushwick dead of the First World War. Freedom Triangle is evidently a popular spot for local occultists. The magician pointed out a ceramic cockerel’s head, fixed high up on a steel girder. On the sidewalk someone had scratched a unicursal hexagram, a magical figure that can be drawn in a single continuous gesture, one of the signs of Thelema, the religion founded by the magician Aleister Crowley. He knelt down and performed a complex ritual, sprinkling earth or sand to form a circle, lighting a candle on which he drew symbols with a magic marker. When I asked him to explain what he had done, he declined, apologetically. When you do a ritual, he told me, you are supposed to try to erase it from your memory. It is an attempt to circumvent certain rational processes, to short-circuit the mental habit of analysis.

Freedom Triangle

We walked on through streets of identical low-rise projects to Knollwood Park, part of a five-mile-long chain of cemeteries that stretches away into Queens. We made our way between rows of neatly kept graves, and within a few minutes found evidence of a Santería ritual. Along with Haitian Voodoo, Santería is by far the most widely practiced esoteric religion in Brooklyn. Across the borough, dozens of Botanicas sell magical supplies, herbs and statuary and various powders and potions used by its adherents. Celebrants had left plates under a tree, with offerings of coconut and some charred pieces of paper, remains, possibly, of petitions to the Orisha Elegua, a trickster who concerns himself with the beginning and the end of life.

At Catland, an occult bookstore in Bushwick that is at the center of a rumored magical revival in Brooklyn, two of the proprietors, Fred Jennings and Phil English, told me that it was important for a magic-worker to acknowledge the spirits of place. Those spirits can be tied to the landscape, or brought in by immigrants. The Orisha have come in from Cuba; the Saints planted in front yards in Carroll Gardens have traveled from towns and villages in southern Italy. On the Bushwick stretch of Myrtle Avenue, spirits crowded at the shop windows, as if eager to push their way out into the wider world. Jesús Malverde, the Mexican “narco saint.” Maximón, of the Guatemalan Maya. From Venezuela, there was Maria Lionza and her thronged “courts” of lesser deities. On the wall by a taqueria was the Virgin of Guadelupe wearing her robe of stars. Skull-faced Santa Muerte was everywhere, carrying her scythe, her cloak customized with velvet or almighty dollar bills. There were all the Catholic Saints whose masks the Loa and the Orisha wear to fool the white overseer, and others, like John the Baptist, who have become Loa in their own right. There was Saint Cyprian of Antioch, the patron of magicians. There was jackal-headed Anubis. In this syncretic crowd there was even room for Mickey Mouse and Buzz Lightyear. Perhaps some plaster statuettes are just plaster statuettes.

I went walking downtown, past Brooklyn Borough Hall and the Kings County Supreme Court, where the presiding spirits were Moses, Columbus, Robert Kennedy, Henry Ward Beecher and the dead of the Second World War. Phil and Fred had told me that much practical magic is worked around government buildings. People often turn to spells to help them face the ordinary troubles of life, many of which can lead to entanglements with the state. Hoodoo workers chew galangal or “court case root,” trying to spit in the path of a person they’re trying to influence.  They sprinkle confusion in the form of mustard seeds or try to sweeten a jury with honey jar spells. I found no evidence of magic there, nothing like the charm I’d happened upon at a Bushwick street corner, a rusty nail tied to a length of cord with a complicated series of knots: evidence, thought Phil, of someone wanting to tie something or someone firmly down.

Magic, it seems, is worked everywhere. Even the humblest of intersections is a crossroads, and possesses that ancient symbolic power. The blandest and most orderly cemetery is a gateway to the world of the dead. If you want something to leave you, immerse it in the running water of the East River. If you want to seal connections, fix a lock to one of the bridges. The Haitian Loa, who did not come here voluntarily, are worshipped on Jacob Riis Beach, close to the Atlantic Ocean, their drums calling out to the slave forts on the West African coast.  In grocery stores and restaurants, Laxmi Devi or the maneki-neko ‘beckoning cat’ draw custom through the door.

In magical Brooklyn, all roads lead back to Green-Wood.  I went there again with Katelyn Foisy, an artist and witch who worried about New York’s well-known tendency to erase its past. She had a project to invoke the spirits of the most recently vanished layer of the city, the artistic milieu of downtown. Her pantheon included rascals like William Burroughs and Taylor Mead. She wanted to enlist their help in opposing gentrification and returning some of the old Dionysian energy to an increasingly stolid city. Leaving nine pennies near the gate for the Orisha Oya, she ignored the old Egyptologist Parsons and the political power of Boss Tweed in favor of the grave of Jean-Michel Basquiat, for whom she had made a crown.

From Green-Wood, I walked home through a silent Prospect Park to Clinton Hill. Following Foisy’s logic, the one who must be called back to help this particular neighborhood is the murdered rapper Christopher Wallace, better known as The Notorious B.I.G. A mural of his jowly face looks down on Fulton Street. Worshippers (it’s really not too strong a term) make pilgrimages to the apartment building on Saint James Place where he grew up. They take photos outside his front door. They film rap videos. On his birthday they leave flowers and pour libations of Hennessy cognac on the ground. Biggie, who once bagged groceries at the local supermarket, has now become the presiding spirit of this place. And of course, the threads of gnostic connection run deep. His earliest gigs were played in the basement of a nondescript building opposite owned by a local fraternal organization: the Orient Temple of the Ancient Free and Accepted Masons. This suggests, to certain observers, that Biggie may have been an adept, a man in possession of secret knowledge.

Hari Kunzru is the author of the novels THE IMPRESSIONIST, TRANSMISSION, MY REVOLUTIONS, and GODS WITHOUT MEN , the story collection NOISE, and TWICE UPON A TIME: LISTENING TO NEW YORK.
Story Responses