What exactly is the Illuminati? Conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones believe it is a clandestine, possibly satanic organization secretly controlling every aspect of the world as we know it. According to rumors, the Illuminati even orchestrated several celebrity deaths for the group's own societal gain. The organization's alleged ultimate goal is to implement the New World Order, described by New York Magazine writer Hua Hsu as "an all-powerful, possibly Luciferian, one-world government."
But is the Illuminati real? If we're going by the conspiratorial definition, probably not. A real secret society operated under this name for a brief period in the 18th century, but it bared little resemblance to the supposedly influential and nefarious organization we speak of today.
How did this small intellectual group of yesteryear become - at least in the eyes of conspiracy theorists - the single most insidious shadow network of all time? Here are the verifiable, undeniable Illuminati facts, from the society's quiet inception and swift disbandment, to its alleged resurgence as the rumored nexus of all evil.
The Illuminati Disbanded In 1785 Due To Its Popularity And Infighting
During its brief existence, the Illuminati became quite popular. According to some reports, the group boasted upwards of 3,000 members by 1784. However, the society's popularity - along with infighting between Adam Weishaupt and Baron Adolph von Knigge - led to the Illuminati's downfall in 1785. Knigge instituted much of the organization's structure (he was a defector from Freemasonry) and continued to add new levels of membership as the years went on. National Geographic reports:
The membership levels also became a more complex hierarchy. There were a total of 13 degrees of initiation, divided into three classes. The first culminated in the degree of illuminatus minor, the second illuminatus dirigens, and the third, that of king.
Moreover, according to Conrad Goeringer, Weishaupt also "condemned his former associate [Knigge] for his growing obsession with occultism and ritual." This is ironic since the public eventually associated the Illuminati with occult and satanic practices.
Bavaria Banned Secret Societies - Especially The Illuminati
Baron Adolph von Knigge's removal from the group compelled two members to come forward with inside information on the Illuminati's practices. However, the Catholic Church was already privy to some of their activities. Anti-church propaganda originating from a Masonic lodge dominated by the Illuminati forced that particular branch to close, and a widespread crackdown on secret societies ensued.
Many reports of Illuminati beliefs and activities were false but salacious - especially the notion the group actively conspired against Bavaria on behalf of Austria. This led to an edict from the Duke Elector of Bavaria expressly banning the Illuminati. Adam Weishaupt lost his professorship at the University of Ingolstadt.
The story could have ended there were it not for the rather out-there theories posited by Augustin Barruel, an exiled French priest living in England. Barruel insisted the Illuminati only disbanded on paper and were secretly continuing their revolutionary machinations. However, instead of orchestrating the fall of Bavaria on behalf of Austria, the group allegedly helped instigate the French Revolution.
Barruel published his ideas in 1798, the same year John Robison produced his treatise Proofs of a Conspiracy Against All the Religions and Governments of Europe, which featured a similar French Revolution theory. In essence, the first formal conspiracy theories were found in the writings of Barruel, Robison, and several others.
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A Prank And A Trilogy Of Novels Gave Birth To The Modern-Day Illuminati
Theories on the Illuminati's influence on history resurfaced over 150 years later. Reporting for the BBC, Sophia Smith Galer wrote:
It all began somewhere amid the Summer of Love and the hippie phenomenon, when a small, printed text emerged: Principia Discordia.
The book was, in a nutshell, a parody text for a parody faith - Discordianism - conjured up by enthusiastic anarchists and thinkers to bid its readers to worship Eris, goddess of chaos. The Discordian movement was ultimately a collective that wished to cause civil disobedience, practical jokes, and hoaxes.
While the book did not involve a real religion, one of the authors of Principia Discordia, Kerry Thornley, partnered with writer Robert Anton Wilson, who worked for Playboy at the time, to actualize some of the text's ideas. According to Galer, "They wanted to bring chaos back into society to shake things up." Author David Bramwell explains:
The way to do that was to spread disinformation. To disseminate misinformation through all portals - through counterculture, through the mainstream media, through whatever means. And they decided they would do that initially by telling stories about the Illuminati.
Thornley and Wilson drafted fictional letters to the editors of Playboy sharing information about the mysterious and nefarious organization. They then submitted a second wave of letters countering the claims of the previous entries.
They hoped readers would notice the discrepancies and realize it was all made up. Taking things a step further, Wilson and another Playboy writer, Robert Shea, created The Illuminatus! Trilogy, a collection of surreal, satirical novels.
It implicates the Illuminati in the untimely demises of John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr. Moreover, one of the books theorizes Adam Weishaupt escaped to America following his disgrace in Bavaria, took out George Washington, and assumed his identity to spread Illuminati influence in the New World.
Again, the authors intended these stories as absurdist historical fiction. However, conspiracy theories about the Illuminati ran amok, and many people began actively claiming the group still existed and wielded power with impunity.
It is thus a rich irony that what was essentially "fake news" from the 1960s led to our modern conception of the Illuminati - all Weishaupt wanted was a society based on wisdom and the search for the truth.