The Illuminati are synonymous with conspiracy theories. Signaled by pyramids and creepy eye symbols, many believe they are a shadowy organization with global influence that’s hell-bent on controlling the world’s population, sparking wars for their own evil ends, and sculpting reality. It’s lesser known, however, that the idea of the Illuminati being puppet masters of the New World Order was actually started by a peculiar prank in the 1960s called Operation Mindf*ck.
The Illuminati were a real secret society that was formed in 18th-century Bavaria. This was the Age of Enlightenment, when old dogmas of religion and superstition were being challenged by science and reason, bringing a tidal wave of technological and social change to Europe and beyond.
One of the characters in this battle was Adam Weishaupt, a German philosopher and law professor at the University of Ingolstadt, who was keen to push back Christianity’s influence on state power. Like many inspired by the Enlightenment’s ethos of liberty and equality, he dreamt of liberating peoples’ minds from superstition and severing religion from the state.
His anti-clerical views were deemed deeply controversial and resulted in clashes with the Church, especially the Jesuits who had a strong influence on public life in Bavaria and the university.
Not taken by the views of Freemasonry, Weishaupt set up his own society with four other people on May 1, 1776. They were originally named Bund der Perfektibilisten, or Covenant of Perfectibility, but they eventually landed on the much catchier title, the Illuminati. Their symbol became the Owl of Minerva, the owl from Greek mythology that was a companion of the goddess of wisdom Athena.
The movement grew in the shadows and started to attract a number of influential members, including influential intellectuals, prominent artists, and progressive politicians. Even around this time, the Illuminati were accused of meddling in political affairs. They were even blamed for inciting slave rebellions in the Caribbean and starting the French Revolution.
As their power grew across Europe, they became known to the powers that be and governments looked to stamp them out. The Illuminati was declared a branch of the illegal Freemasonry organization and banned in 1785. Weishaupt was stripped of his position at the University of Ingolstadt and was eventually forced to flee Bavaria.
They likely wielded considerable influence on 18th-century Bavarian politics, but there is no evidence that the order still exists, nor is there any evidence of modern organizations having any significant ties to the original group.
To understand why they became linked to modern-day conspiracy theories, we have to fast-forward to the 1960s and the strange story of Operation Mindf*ck, a project started by Kerry Thornley, co-founder of a satirical religion called Discordianism, and Robert Anton Wilson, a journalist at Playboy magazine.
The pair of jokers believed the world was becoming too authoritarian and the only remedy was to sow anarchic chaos into the world. As BBC Future explains, they started sending fake letters to Playboy that blamed news events on the Illuminati. They’d then send more letters that contradict the previous letters, just to microdose confusion in the magazine’s readers.
Wilson went on to write The Illuminatus! Trilogy, together with Robert Shea. One of the main themes of the novel is that the characters of the story become entangled in a web of political cover-ups, including the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr.
It’s an utterly bizarre book with a disorientating non-linear narrative that weaves between satire and science fiction, but it further cemented the idea that the Illuminati were steering the ship of history.
While it’s hard to know the true intention of these hijinks, they undoubtedly left a lasting impression on the world. Many of the old conspiracy theory tropes, such as why there’s a pyramid on the one-dollar bill, can be directly tied back to the words of Wilson, Thornley, and Shea.
With the proliferation of disinformation and conspiracy theories we see today, it is hard to know whether these agents of chaos would be pleased or horrified. It’s clear, however, that they certainly succeeded in shaking up the world, for better or for worse.
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