How the “Illuminati” conspiracy theory got started

A fascinating article at the BBC explains where the “Illuminati” hoax originated, and how it spread.

When most people try to look into the secret society’s history, they find themselves in Germany with the Enlightenment-era Order of the Illuminati. It was a Bavarian secret society, founded in 1776, for intellectuals to privately group together and oppose the religious and elitist influence over daily life. It included several well-known progressives at the time but, along with the Freemasons, they found themselves gradually outlawed by conservative and Christian critics and the group faded out of existence.

That is, until the 1960s. The Illuminati that we’ve come to hear about today is hardly influenced by the Bavarians at all, as I learned from author and broadcaster David Bramwell, a man who has dedicated himself to documenting the origins of the myth. Instead, an era of counter-culture mania, LSD and interest in Eastern philosophy is largely responsible for the group’s (totally unsubstantiated) modern incarnation. 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.

The text itself never amounted to anything more than a counter-culture curiosity, but one of the tenets of the faith – that such miscreant activities could bring about social change and force individuals to question the parameters of reality – was immortalised by one writer, Robert Anton Wilson.

According to Bramwell, Wilson and one of the authors of the Principia Discordia, Kerry Thornley, “decided that the world was becoming too authoritarian, too tight, too closed, too controlled”. They wanted to bring chaos back into society to shake things up, and “the way to do that was to spread disinformation. To disseminate misinformation through all portals – through counter culture, through the mainstream media, through whatever means. And they decided they would do that initially by telling stories about the Illuminati.”

At the time, Wilson worked for the men’s magazine Playboy. He and Thornley started sending in fake letters from readers talking about this secret, elite organisation called the Illuminati. Then they would send in more letters – to contradict the letters they had just written.

“So, the concept behind this was that if you give enough contrary points of view on a story, in theory – idealistically – the population at large start looking at these things and think, ‘hang on a minute’,” says Bramwell.  “They ask themselves, ‘Can I trust how the information is presented to me?’ It’s an idealistic means of getting people to wake up to the suggested realities that they inhabit – which of course didn’t happen quite in the way they were hoping.”

The chaos of the Illuminati myth did indeed travel far and wide – Wilson and another Playboy writer wrote The Illuminatus! Trilogy which attributed the ‘cover-ups’ of our times – such as who shot John F. Kennedy – to the Illuminati. The books became such a surprise cult success that they were made into a stage play in Liverpool, launching the careers of British actors Bill Nighy and Jim Broadbent.

There’s much more at the link.  Interesting and entertaining reading, particularly for those seeking to understand conspiracy theories.

The article is an intriguing study into how “fake news” can burgeon into a mass delusion that’s taken on a life of its own.  I know some individuals who are absolutely, utterly convinced that the Illuminati run the world (usually conflated with another conspiracy theory, the “New World Order“).  They truly believe that anyone who dares to “reveal the truth” about the Illuminati is in danger.  They can’t and won’t be persuaded that they might, just possibly, have been deceived by a deliberate hoax.

I’m just waiting to be told that the Illuminati somehow created and spread the COVID-19 pandemic!



  1. generally modern thinkers believe the boys and girls do exist but today call them the "deep state". those un-elected yet permanent bureaucrats that are the bane of common sense and clear thinking who's pay grade is linked to the number of drones they control instead of their productivity and efficiency.
    there was years ago a society in la belle france dedicated to lording power over the farmers that made up the country's majority. the goal of the society was to hide from plain sight while excersizing extraordinary power over the commoners daily lives. politicians and ministers come and go, but the bureaucrats stayed in perpetual power.
    Now, doesn't that all sound somewhat familiar?

  2. I don't know that I believe the Illuminati exist *as a group who call themselves The Illuminati* but I know for a fact that nothing the BBC has to say on the subject will ever convince me. If orgs like the BBC, NYTimes, etc, tell me the sky is blue, I'll suspect it's not until I've verified it for myself.

    They're evil. And if there is an organization that in any way bears a resemblance to the "Illuminati" then, dollars to donuts, those orgs are controlled by it.

    Side note, Jeffrey Epstein called. He said it's perfectly fine being seen as a threat by a powerful, secretive group of evil people who definitely don't exist as a group. Not bad for your health at all. Also he totally killed himself. /S

  3. And then there's the (in)famous chant attributed to those who took "The Necronomicon" seriously:
    "It's true,
    it's true,
    every word of it's true.
    I made it all up,
    and it's tru-u-u-u-e!"

    1. And from the distant past of DOS era computing, a friend told a joke about knowing someone who was coding gbe Necronomicon as a self-extracting file.
      John in Indy

  4. I read the Illuminatus Trilogy in the 70s. I never thought it was anything but a clever amalgamation of crackpot conspiracy theories put together as entertainment. I did not take it seriously and still don't. As a Texas Freemason I know how silly this stuff can get. When people ask I always tell them that "Yes we are plotting to control the world but we only meet once a month and knock off early for dinner so it is progressing very slowly".

  5. I've been a fan of RA Wilson since the '70's too. The trilogy is just fun, wackadoodle stuff that Wilson and Shea threw together to see how absurd they could get. It allegedly links every conspiracy you've ever heard of back to Atlantis and before.
    Wilson was perfectly serious though about his philosophy of Radical Agnosticism, and I concur with his idea that our partially evolved chimpanzee brains are not capable of apprehending reality: The universe is not only wierder than you imagine, it's wierder than you're CAPABLE of imagining. Cf Douglas Adams as well.

  6. And the Rosicrucians started as a Renaissance chain letter.

    And the Priory of Sion was entirely fabricated by a career criminal putting his experience as a conman and forger to creative use.
    And it doesn't matter.
    Would you rather imagine a world where short-sighted stupidity wins over and over again?
    Or one where the powerful people who could end your life and livelihood on a whim are actually smart, far-sighted, and patiently enacting a secret plan?
    (This delusion is possibly most attractive to the people who gained power they do not deserve.)
    And, as storytellers, it's a hell of a lot more fun

  7. Unknown. "…a world where short sighted stupidity wins over and over again." That does seem to sum it up(I'm stealing that one)rather nicely. Are you old enough to remember when the Rosicrucian Society advertised in Popular Mechanics Magazine? Their mailing address was in California some place. Big surprise that. Since I have never seen any expose articles on them, like there have been about Scientology, they must have been pretty benign. As you say, the field is great for story telling and I have enjoyed my share of them.

    1. The Rosicrucians started shortly after Mr. Gutenberg's invention caught on. Some legendary joker printed up a bunch of flyers, and had them posted in cities across Europe. They proclaimed that The Brotherhood of the Rosy Cross would be inviting the most exceptional men alive to join their number and learn their closely guarded secrets.
      Naturally, people were curious if their resident philosophers and potentates had been invited, so they asked. And were told "No". Which set off speculation that if so-and-so with all his wealth, power, knowledge, and accomplishments wasn't considered worthy to join, who was?
      Of course, there were some who said "No", but did so with a wink.
      Not to mention a whole lot of extremely powerful and status conscious people mortally offended that they hadn't been invited. (Especially if they suspected that some black sheep cousin from a lesser branch of the family had been!)
      It became a self-licking ice cream cone in almost no time.
      (And if the guy who started it had originally planned establishing an actual secret society, he wisely kept his head down, and his mouth shut.)

  8. From Steve Jackson Games – Illuminati (card game) and Illuminati New World Order (collectible card game).

  9. The problem with actually running a secret society is the quality of the people that tend to join them.

    All three of the gigantic tyrannies of the 20th century (run by Stalin, Hitler, and Mao) may have started out in a small secret conclave, but they rapidly jettisoned the original group and took power within a decade.

    My guess is that there were a thousand such groups throughout history that simply faded away in failure or fraud.

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