When it comes to shadowy cabals that supposedly control the world, the Illuminati should be at the top of any conspiracy theorist’s list. An Illuminati Facebook page has 3.4 million likes, Madonna writes songs about the group, and YouTube channels calling pretty much everyone Illuminati notch almost 200,000 subscribers.
To sort out the truth about the Illuminati, I consulted a variety of experts on the subject. Mark A. Fenster, a law professor at the University of Florida and author of Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture, sums up the group’s long-lasting appeal. “It’s absurd on its face that you’ve got this sacred group that’s more than 300 years old and continue to see arguments about its relevance today,” he says. “The fact that the discussion is alive is amazing.”
The Illuminati wasn’t always just some crazy chimera — it used to be a very real group with ambitious goals. And even though it doesn’t exist anymore, the fact that many people still have paranoid beliefs about it reveals a lot about power, our culture — and, of course, what we think about Jay Z.
1) What is the Illuminati?
In a historical sense, the term “Illuminati” refers to the Bavarian Illuminati, a secret society that operated for only a decade, from 1776 to 1785. This organization was founded by Adam Weishaupt, a German law professor who believed strongly in Enlightenment ideals, and his lluminatenorden sought to promote those ideals among elites. Weishaupt wanted to educate Illuminati members in reason, philanthropy, and other secular values so that they could influence political decisions when they came to power.
“It was pretty ambitious for six or nine guys, but they really wanted to take over the world,” says Chris Hodapp, the co-author of Conspiracy Theories and Secret Societies for Dummieswith Alice VonKannon.
The Illuminati’s goals — and reputation — often exceeded their means, Hodapp notes. In its early days, the group was just a handful of people. And even at its largest, it only consisted of somewhere between 650 and 2,500 members. The group grew to that size by becoming a sort of sleeper cell within other groups — Illuminati members joined Freemason lodges to recruit members for their own competing secret society.
2) What did the Illuminati believe?
There were two sides to the historical Illuminati: their odd rituals and their ideals.
The Illuminati did plenty of unusual things. They used symbols (like the owl), adopted pseudonyms to avoid identification, and had complicated hierarchies like Novice, Minerval, and Illuminated Minerval that divided the ranks. In the beginning, Hodapp says, Illuminati members didn’t trust anyone over 30, because they were too set in their ways. Other reports of rituals are harder to confirm, but we know that members were very paranoid and used spy-like protocol to keep one another’s identities secret.
But while they were following these bizarre rituals, they also promoted a worldview that reflected Enlightenment ideals like rational thought and self-rule. Anti-clerical and anti-royal, the Illuminati were closer to revolutionaries than world rulers, since they sought to infiltrate and upset powerful institutions like the monarchy.
3) Did the Illuminati manage to control the world?
Historians tend to think the Illuminati were only mildly successful — at best — in becoming influential. (Though, of course, there are also those who believe the Illuminati successfully took over the world — and still control it today. If an all-powerful group does dominate the world, we probably wouldn’t know about it. Δ.)
It’s also difficult to untangle the success of the Illuminati from that of the Freemasons, which they infiltrated and commingled with. It’s just as tough to tell what influence the Illuminati actuallyhad as opposed to the influence people think they had.
We do know the Illuminati had some influential members — along with many dukes and other leaders who were powerful but are forgotten today, some sources think writer Johann Goethe was a member of the group (though other sources dispute the claim). In a way, Illuminati influence depends on what you believe about them. If you think their revolutionary idealsspread to other groups, like the French Revolution’s Jacobins, then they were successful. If you think those ideas would have prospered regardless, then they were mainly a historical curiosity.
4) Why did the real Illuminati disappear?
“They were wiped out,” Hodapp says. “People have tried to revive them over the years, but it’s a moneymaking scheme.”
In 1785, Duke of Bavaria Karl Theodor banned secret societies, including the Illuminati, and instituted serious punishments for anyone who joined them. Most of the group’s secrets were disclosed or published, and, if you believe most historians, the Illuminati disappeared.
From the moment of the disbanding, however, the myth expanded. As described in Conspiracy Theories in American History: An Encyclopedia, documents found in the homes of high-ranking Illuminati members like Xavier von Zwack confirmed some of the spookiest Illuminati theories, like their dreams of world domination and cultish behavior (even though those documents may exaggerate the truth about the group).
5) If the Illuminati vanished, how did their legend live on?
Almost immediately after the Illuminati were disbanded, conspiracy theories about the group sprang up.
The most famous conspiracy theories were authored by physicist John Robison in 1797, who accused the Illuminati of infiltrating the Freemasons, and Abbe Augustin Barruel, whose 1797 history of the Jacobins promoted the theory that secret societies, including the Illuminati, were behind the French Revolution. Historians tend to see these as the first in a long line of conspiracy theories (though, again, for those who believe the Illuminati run the world today, this is arguably proof of the group’s power).
Later on, some of the Founding Fathers managed to stoke interest in the Illuminati in the United States. In 1798, George Washington wrote a letter addressing the Illuminati threat (he believed it had been avoided, but his mentioning it helped bolster the myth). In the panic caused by the anti-Illuminati books and sermons, Thomas Jefferson was (baselessly) accused of being a member of the group.
Though these early Illuminati panics fizzled out, they gave the group a patina of legitimacy that, later on, would help make a centuries-long conspiracy seem more plausible.
6) Are the Illuminati related to the Freemasons?
Conspiracy theories have always been popular in the United States, but for centuries, the Illuminati were less feared than the Freemasons. The 1828 Anti-Masonic Party was based on an opposition to the Freemasons, and though the party died out, Freemasons remained a focal point for paranoia in America. Because the Illuminati recruited many members in Europe through Freemason lodges, the two groups are often confused for each other.
To some degree, Freemason paranoia grew out of the Freemasons’ influence in the United States. Many Founding Fathers were members, after all. And some key American symbols may have been derived from the Freemasons: There’s a strong argument that the floating eye on the dollar, the Eye of Providence above a pyramid, comes from Freemasonry. (There’s also an argument that it was meant as a Christian symbol; the only thing we know for certain is that it has nothing to do with the Bavarian Illuminati.)
That early Freemason paranoia can help us understand the conspiracy theories about the Illluminati today. “People will use a term like ‘Illuminati’ to define anything that they don’t like that might challenge their values,” says Joseph Uscinski, a political scientist at the University of Miami and co-author of American Conspiracy Theorieswith Joseph Parent.
7) Why do people still believe in the Illuminati today?
The Illuminati never completely disappeared from popular culture — it was always burbling in the background. But in the mid-1970s, the Illuminati made a marked comeback thanks to a literary trilogy that gave the group the simultaneously spooky and laughable image it holds today.
The Illuminatus Trilogy, by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson, depicted the Illuminati with ironic detachment. This trilogy became a countercultural touchstone, and its intermingling of real research — Weishaupt, the founder of the real Illuminati, is a character — with fantasy helped put the Illuminati back on the radar.
“It was a great example of the post-’60s ways of ironizing elite forms of power,” Mark Fenster says. “That ironic vision of conspiracy theory is extremely widely distributed. You can be both a serious conspiracy theorist and joke about it.”
From there, the Illuminati became a periodic staple of both popular culture — as in Dan Brown’s massively popular novel Angels and Demons — and various subcultures, where the group is often intermingled with Satanism, alien myths, and other ideas that would have been totally foreign to the real Bavarian Illuminati.
Uscinski clarifies that most Americans today don’t actually believe in the Illuminati. In a survey of conspiracy theories he conducted in 2012, he says zero people claimed that groups like Freemasons or Illuminati were controlling politics. Even so, the Illuminati seem to persist in our collective consciousness, serving as the butt of jokes and the source of lizard people rumors (explained here).
8) Are Jay Z, Kanye West, and other celebrities in the Illuminati?
We contacted Kanye West and Jay Z’s spokesmen, but they did not return our request for comment. Jay Z has previously said that he thinks rumors of his membership in the Illuminati are “stupid.” Kanye West has said it’s “ridiculous.” Of course, to conspiracy theorists, that’s exactly what a member of the Illuminati would say.
In a broader sense, rumors about the Illuminati and celebrities speak to their place in our culture. Fenster sees the half-ironic, half-serious accusations of Illuminati membership as the latest expression of an old American phenomenon. “It marks that Jay Z and Beyoncé seem to live in a different universe than us,” he says. “They have secret lives and secret access that seems reptilian. We notice how bizarre their lives seem to be and how powerful they seem to be.”
Uscinski also notes the ties between power and conspiracy. “The thing that ties conspiracy theories together is that they always point at someone who is supposedly powerful,” he says. “You never hear a conspiracy theory about the homeless guy in the street or a gang of poor children.”
Both Fenster and Uscinski noted that conspiracy theories can, in many ways, represent genuine anxieties about social problems. In a global, media-driven world, celebrities represent a new and unusual form of power that has an appropriately conspiratorial response.