The existence of a secret society known as the Illuminati remains one of the most enduring conspiracy theories of modern times.
Doctors, politicians, actors and musicians have been accused of being members of a shadowy group that supposedly controls the world.
While most of the rumours are fiction, the group itself was real, though its influence was not nearly as vast and enduring as modern conspiracists claim.
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How did the Illuminati start?
The Order of the Illuminati was a secret group founded in Bavaria in 1776 by Adam Weishaupt, who believed “the monarchy and the church were repressing freedom of thought”, said National Geographic.
Weishaupt “decided to find another form of ‘illumination’, a set of ideas and practices that could be applied to radically change the way European states were run”, said the magazine. He based his society on the Freemasons, with a hierarchy and mysterious rituals, and named it the Order of Illuminati to reflect the enlightened ideals of its educated members.
The society grew from a handful of men to a few thousand, including some influential members, with the most famous thought to have been the German thinker Johann Wolfgang von Goethe – although this is disputed. However, it didn’t last long after Karl Theodor, Duke of Bavaria, outlawed secret groups on punishment of death in the late 1780s.
“Most of the group’s secrets were disclosed or published, and, if you believe most historians, the Illuminati disappeared,” said Vox. Yet, from the moment the real-life group disbanded, “the myth expanded”.
How did the myth develop?
According to the author David Bramwell, the 1960s “era of counter-culture mania, LSD and interest in Eastern philosophy is largely responsible for the group’s (totally unsubstantiated) modern incarnation”, said BBC Future. “It all began somewhere amid the Summer of Love and the hippie phenomenon, when a small, printed text emerged: Principia Discordia,” explained the broadcaster.
The book extolled an alternative belief system – Discordianism – which preached a form of anarchism and gave birth to the Discordian movement, which ultimately wished to cause civil disobedience through practical jokes and hoaxes.
One of the main proponents of this new ideology was a writer called Robert Anton Wilson, who wanted to bring chaos back into society by spreading “misinformation through all portals – through counter culture, through the mainstream media”, said Bramwell. Followers did this by sending fake letters to magazines, attributing cover-ups and conspiracy theories, such as the JFK assassination, to a secret elite organisation called the Illuminati.
Wilson went on to turn these theories into a book, “The Illuminatus Trilogy”, which became a surprise cult success and was even made into a stage play in Liverpool, launching the careers of British actors Bill Nighy and Jim Broadbent.
There were much earlier “Illuminati panics”, said Vox, such as in 1798, when George Washington “wrote a letter addressing the Illuminati threat (he believed it had been avoided, but his mentioning it helped bolster the myth)”. These “fizzled out”, but nevertheless “gave the group a patina of legitimacy”, said the site.
The idea of a powerful global elite conspiring to rule the world remained a niche belief upheld by a handful of enthusiasts until the 1990s. The internet changed all that, giving conspiracy theorists a global platform to expound their beliefs and present their evidence to a massive audience.
How popular is the myth today?
It remains “one of the world’s most widely punted conspiracy theories”, said BBC Future. But other similar myths have cropped up over the years.
The New World Order conspiracy, for example, overlaps with the Illuminati conspiracy, but they are “not synonymous”, explained the Institute for Strategic Dialogue.
Theories about how the New World Order operates range from relatively straightforward ideas to the outright bizarre. The group has been linked “to everything from the French Revolution to the assassination of JFK” and served as “inspiration for Dan Brown’s Angels & Demons and Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco”, said History.com.
Both conspiracy theories are rooted in a belief that “a cabal of elites is working behind the scenes to orchestrate global events to enslave the global populace”, explained the Middlebury Institute of International Studies.
Conspiracy theorists often analyse public events for “evidence” of Illuminati influence. The symbols most associated with the Illuminati include pentagrams, goats, the all-seeing eye in a triangle – such as the one that appears on US banknotes – and the number 666.
This has led to claims that some of the American Founding Fathers were members, with Thomas Jefferson accused in the aftermath of the War of Independence.
US President Joe Biden fanned the flames of the conspiracy in 2022 when he referred to a coming “new world order” in the wake of the Ukraine crisis. The Independent reported that it was clear “he was referring to the shifting sands of geopolitical relations”. However, this didn’t stop Twitter lighting up with outlandish ideas.
Who is supposedly a member?
Aside from the US president, Beyonce and Jay-Z are frequently depicted as lords of the New World Order. Both have denied the claims.
Beyonce’s immense fame and popularity have long made her a favourite target for conspiracy theorists. Illuminati “experts” seized upon her half-time performance at the 2013 Super Bowl as an example of her “devilworshipping” choreography, even accusing her on-stage alter ego Sasha Fierce of being a “demonic entity”.
Jay Z has also been accused of hiding secret symbols such as goat imagery and devil horns in his music videos. The logo for his own music label, Roc-A-Fella Records, is a pyramid – one of the most well-known Illuminati logos.
Some musicians seem to enjoy deliberately playing with symbols connected to secret societies. For instance, Rihanna frequently incorporated Illuminati images into her music videos, and even joked about the theories in the video for “S&M”, which featured a fake newspaper with a headline declaring her “Princess of the Illuminati”.
David Rockefeller, Henry Kissinger, Jacob Rothschild and even Queen Elizabeth II were all rumoured to be members due to their wealth and influence. The late Queen, according to entertainment site Complex, was accused of running a “cloning centre where she replicated celebrities to help fulfill the Illuminati’s vision of a New World Order”.
Katy Perry once told Rolling Stone the theory was the preserve of “weird people on the internet” but admitted she was flattered to be named among the supposed members: “I guess you’ve kind of made it when they think you’re in the Illuminati!”
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