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Who are the Illuminati?

Jan 23, 2020
The Week Staff

Beyonce, Madonna and Katy Perry among the stars accused of belonging to secret society

Kevork Djansezian/Getty

A court in Thailand has acquitted a high-profile party accused of links to the secretive society known as the Illuminati amid claims they wanted to overthrow the monarchy.

The progressive Future Forward Party, which came third in last March's election, has emerged as the main opposition to the ruling junta but faced accusations it was seeking to overthrow the monarchy, a grave offence in Thailand.

As evidence of this, it has been claimed the party symbol resembles an upside down triangle that is linked to the so-called “Illuminati”, a mysterious group which conspiracy theorists believe is seeking a “New World Order” that would impose a totalitarian world government.

The dismissed complaint alleges the Illuminati played a role in the fall of monarchies in Europe and is now seeking to destroy Thailand’s royal traditions, reports Reuters.

So who are the Illuminati and who has the group apparently recruited?

Among the alleged members of the secret society are not just politicians and religious leaders, but even actors and pop stars.

Unlikely as it might sound, the Illuminati theory has no small number of committed adherents, particularly in the US - according to a new poll by Insider, around 15% of the American electorate believe that the Illuminati exists.

According to the news site, the age groups most likely to believe were Gen X-ers and older millennials, and “Republicans were more likely to believe in the secret society than Democrats”.

“An estimated 200 million Americans were registered to vote in the 2016 presidential election,” the site notes. “If Insider's poll is an accurate picture of the entire US population, 30 million of those voters would be people who believe in the Illuminati.”

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Who are the Illuminati?

The original Illuminati group was founded in Bavaria in the 18th century by Adam Weishaupt, an anti-clerical professor who wanted to limit the interference of the Church in public life. 

Convinced that religious ideas were no longer an adequate belief system to govern modern societies, “he 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”, reports National Geographic. He based his secret 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.

Chris Hodapp, the co-author of Conspiracy Theories and Secret Societies for Dummies, says a defining feature of early Illuminati members is that they did not trust anyone over 30, because they were too set in their ways.

In terms of their legacy, historians tend to think the original Illuminati was only “mildly successful — at best — in becoming influential”, says Vox. The order did boast some influential members, with the most famous of these alleged to have been the German thinker Johann Goethe.

The Illuminati was stamped out by a government crackdown on secret societies in the late 1780s, but rumours that it continued to survive as an underground organisation have persisted into the modern day.

How did the modern-day myth develop?

In a 2017 interview with the BBC, David Bramwell, "a man who has dedicated himself to documenting the origins of the myth", said the modern-day Illuminati legend was influenced not by Weishaupt but rather by LSD, the 1960s counter-culture, and specifically a text called Principia Discordia.

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 "disseminating misinformation through all portals – through counter culture, through the mainstream media," claims Bramwell.

He did this by sending fake letters to the men's magazine Playboy, where he worked, 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 were even made into a stage play in Liverpool, launching the careers of British actors Bill Nighy and Jim Broadbent.

What is the New World Order?

The idea of a powerful modern Illuminati 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.

Theories about how the New World Order operates run from relatively straightforward ideas to the outright bizarre.

Conspiracy theorists obsessively analyse public events for "evidence" of Illuminati influence. The symbols most associated with the Illuminati include triangles, pentagrams, goats, the all-seeing eye – such as the one that appears on US bank notes - and the number 666.

This has led to claims some of the American Founding Fathers were members, with Thomas Jefferson accused in the aftermath of the War of Independence.

Another commonly cited Illuminati symbol, which appears on US currency, is the so-called Eye of Providence, which is said to represent the omniscience of God watching over humanity.

According to a 2013 survey by Public Policy Polling, 28% of US voters believe that a secretive power elite with a globalist agenda is conspiring to eventually rule the world through an authoritarian global government. It found that 34% of Republicans and 35% of independents believe in the New World Order threat compared to just 15% of Democrats.

Who is supposedly a member?

As well as being king and queen of the charts, Beyonce and Jay-Z are frequently depicted as lords of the New World Order. 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 “devil-worshipping” choreography, even accusing her on-stage alter ego Sasha Fierce of being a “demonic entity”.

However, some musicians seem to enjoy deliberately playing with symbols connected to secret societies.

For instance, Rihanna frequently incorporates 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”.

Jay Z has also been accused of hiding secret symbols such as goat imagery and devil horns in his music videos. Most damningly, the logo for his own music label, Roc-A-Fella Records, is a pyramid – one of the most well-known Illuminati logos.

Rob Brotherton, a professor at Barnard College and author of Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe in Conspiracy Theories, explains that real-life government conspiracies targeting black people in America, such as FBI infiltration of the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 60s, planted the seeds for Illuminati theory's popularity among hip-hop artists and fans.

Speaking to Complex, he said: “Hip-hop served as this [soapbox] for people to talk about issues that were relevant to them, things like discrimination, poverty, the criminal justice system, which are often seemingly slanted against African-Americans”.

“It’s a short leap to go from noticing some kind of injustice to thinking about whether there’s something behind it. Hip-hop was just a good candidate to revive this myth,” he says.

What do celebrities have to say about the theories?

Katy Perry told Rolling Stone in 2014 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!" She added she was tolerant of people who wanted to believe in the theory because: “I believe in aliens”.

Madonna, on the other hand, might just be a believer – all the more interesting given that she has frequently been accused of being a member herself. Speaking to Rolling Stone, she hinted that she had secret knowledge of the group. The claim is not so shocking given that she released a single titled 'Illuminati'. She said: “People often accuse me of being a member of the Illuminati, but the thing is, I know who the real Illuminati are.”

In 2016, Beyonce thrilled her fans by unexpectedly releasing a new single, Formation, in February ­– but conspiracy theorists were excited for another reason. The very first line of the track acknowledged the rumours: “Y'all haters corny with that Illuminati mess.”

When Prince died suddenly of an accidental overdose in April of the same year, a small but vocal corner of the internet accused the Illuminati of killing the singer-songwriter, who was famous for fiercely protecting his copyrights and artistic freedom from industry interference.

“The Illuminati talk won't stop coming and what doesn't help is that Prince himself seems to have been genuinely convinced that the organisation existed,” reports one gossip website.

In 2009, the singer appeared on TV to warn of powerful mystery figures controlling the world through “chemtrails” – chemicals pumped into the air via jet planes to manipulate human behaviour.

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For a round-up of the most important stories from around the world - and a concise, refreshing and balanced take on the week’s news agenda - try The Week magazine. Start your trial subscription today
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