The internet is awash with theories about the Illuminati, a mysterious group that conspiracy theorists believe is seeking a ‘New World Order’ that would impose a totalitarian world government. Among the alleged members of the secret society are not just politicians and religious leaders, but actors and pop stars.
Echoing the anti-communist witch-hunts and black-listings of 1950s Hollywood, one of the core beliefs of Illuminati watchers is that the entire entertainment industry has been infiltrated and that Illuminati members are using the media to brainwash the masses.
So who are the Illuminati and who has the group apparently recruited from Tinseltown?
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. 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 recent interview with the BBC, David Bramwell, “a man who has dedicated himself to documenting the origins of the myth”, claims 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?
Despite its relative popularity success, the idea of a powerful modern Illuminati conspiring to rule the world remained a niche belief upheld by a handful of cranks until the 1990s. The spread of 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 the faintly credible – in light of the Davos summit, a cabal of politicians and business leaders getting together to decide global policies doesn’t seem impossible – to the outright bizarre.
Earlier this year, Canada’s respected former defence minister, Paul Hellyer, came out and claimed not only that the Illuminati is real, but that it does indeed control the world.
Speaking on the Lazarus Effect podcast, Hellyer said he believed the world’s elite has suppressed technology brought to Earth by aliens, which could reverse the effects of climate change and end our reliance on fossil fuels.
When asked why, he said many members of the Illuminati have stakes in oil and were therefore heavily invested in how well the industry did.
The Daily Mail said Hellyer’s claim to the validity of the Illuminati myth “makes him the highest ranking government official worldwide to do so”.
At the other end of the believability spectrum is former TV presenter David Icke’s claim that the world’s leaders are actually super-intelligent lizards in human guise who control our reality from the Moon. Those who remember Icke from his days on Grandstand may be surprised to know his theories about our reptilian overlords – who have included the Rothschilds, Bob Hope and Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother – have amassed a faithful following on the internet.
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 baselessly 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.
This month, conspiracy theorists claimed to have found a large triangle printed on the ground in the Arizona desert which they say confirms the presence of the Illuminati.
Looking on Google Earth, the shape appears to be a road attached to a highway, “yet the equilateral triangle doesn’t lead to anywhere, making many think it symbolises something else entirely”, says the Daily Express.
However, the paper says the most likely explanation is that the triangle shows the remnants of a disused airbase, which closed in the 1950s and has since become overgrown with trees and hedges.
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”.
Her recent performance at this year’s Coachella music festival sent conspiracy theorist tongues wagging again.
According to A.V. Club internet truth-seekers have decoded the real meaning behind Beyonce’s set: “displaying and wearing symbols that help people remember she’s out to help establish the New World Order”.
Among the clues that have been seized upon by eagle-eyed fans are Beyonce making a circle over her eye, her decision to wear a costume sporting Egyptian symbolism and her ring which has been said to carry satanic imagery– all of which apparently reference the Illuminati.
Further encouraging the rumours is the widespread use of supposed “Illuminati” imagery in music videos. Many Freemason and Illuminati symbols, like devil horns and the all-seeing eye, have simply become popular in mainstream culture. But it’s also true that 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.
Bob 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 today.
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 is the significance of the black left eye?
Another theory currently doing the rounds suggests celebrities seen sporting black left eyes are actually part of the secretive group.
Elizabeth Hurley, Boy George and Robert Downey Jnr are among the A-listers who have been photographed with eye bruising recently, while former US President George W. Bush, along with the Pope, Prince Philip and Prince Andrew, have all also been photographed with black eyes in recent years.
According to the Daily Mail, some conspiracy theories believe the black left eye “is part of a cult or Illuminati high-level initiation ritual during which the pledger is said to be forced to ‘eat pain’ in a quest to become more powerful”.
Author and internet radio show host Sherry Shriner, who believes politicians and entertainers have sold their souls to Satan, has spoken of the link between these black eyes and so-called “soul scalping”.
“You cannot be on TV now, without signing on the dotted line. The bizarre recurrence of facial bruises on Illuminati politicians and entertainers has resulted in speculation that their souls have been replaced in a satanic ritual called “soul scalping”, she said.
The bruised left eye has also been referred to as the “Illuminati shiner”, a mark given to those who have scaled their way to the top of the elite pyramid.
Since medieval times, the black eye has been associated with the “devil’s mark” while others have noted the link to ancient Egyptian religious imagery, most notably that of the Sun god Horus, whose black left eye represented the moon.
Another, more prosaic explanation, is that the black eye is a result of cosmetic surgery favoured by A-list celebrities.
Does the Illuminati control the music industry?
As a symbol of the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll counterculture of the 1960s, The Beatles were loathed by many conservatives. When John Lennon claimed the band were “bigger than Jesus” in 1966, US evangelicals responded by destroying their records in mass burnings.
However, were the band deliberately planted in order to undermine western society? That’s the premise of the Aquarian Conspiracy, which was started in the 1990s by former MI6 agent John Coleman.
A MI6 insider might ordinarily seem like a reliable source for a juicy scoop about shadowy organisations, but the Aquarian Conspiracy strains the credulousness of even the most ardent conspiracy theorist.
Coleman claimed the Beatles’ overwhelming transatlantic success was engineered by the Tavistock Institute for Human Relations, a London-based social research group – or, as theorists would have it, a nefarious organisation dedicated to eroding the bedrock of US society.
To that end, argues the former special agent, the institute’s Illuminati connections used the Fab Four to further its plan to promote “rock music and drugs” with the aim of “undermining and eventually destroying the family unit”, The Sun reports.
Internet theorists say they picked up signs of so-called Aquarian Conspiracy after poring over song lyrics and album covers to find hidden messages and supposed Illuminati signs.
Earlier this year, Paul McCartney set tongues wagging again, after posting a mystical-looking drawing on his twitter account.
Depicting what looks like a triangular shape surrounded by an orb of spherical emissions, several fans were quick to point out the drawing’s close resemblance to The Eye of Providence; a frequent symbol associated the Illuminati.
What do celebrities have to say about the theories?
Katy Perry told Rolling Stone that 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!” But 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.”
Beyonce thrilled her fans by unexpectedly releasing a new single, Formation, last month – 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,” she says, understandably unimpressed that she apparently owes her success to a devil-worshipping secret sect.
When Prince died suddenly of an accidental overdose in April, 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.
What is QAnon?
The Illuminati is also a favourite subject of the widely publicised pro-Donald Trump QAnon conspiracy theory.
QAnon has sought to tie in a host of outlandish conspiracies about subjects ranging from the sinking of the Titanic to a secret CIA propaganda programme in the 1950s and the foundation of the US Federal Reserve central bank, into an overarching story with the Illuminati at its centre.
QAnon may have only surfaced nine months ago, “but its obsession with the Rothschilds, the Illuminati, the CIA’s supposed Operation Mockingbird, JP Morgan and the Titanic revives decades, even centuries, of moth-eaten paranoia”, says the Washington Post.
The open source nature of QAnon, where an anonymous poster called Q shares something for thousands of other people to interpret as they see fit, “means other conspiracy theories fit neatly within QAnon – like ones about false flag shootings, Jewish bankers controlling the world, or the Illuminati”, says Vox.
QAnon’s readiness to buy into the Illuminati legend is hardly surprising, however, writes James McConnachie and Robin Tudge, authors of The Rough Guide to Conspiracy Theories.
“Perhaps because of the complete lack of any evidence for who the Illuminati actually are, they have simply become whatever conspiracists want them to be”, they say.