A history of why you shouldn’t be worried about the Illuminati

More like New World Dis-order, amirite?

Freemasons assembled for a masonic ceremony at Earls Court, London. (Getty)

You know the Illuminati as the clandestine group of satanic crooks corrupting Beyoncé.

The idea invokes conspiracy theories of crooked politicians, celebrities, and CEOs bankrolling a New World Order. If that narrative is to be believed, everyone from Eminem to Obama has agreed to propagate the agenda of an atheist, occult society orchestrating the trajectory of modern society.

Sorry to say, the actual Illuminati could barely agree on a name, much less construct a 240-year-old international network of operatives.

Tired of Jesuits running everything at the university where he worked, Bavarian professor Adam Weishaupt decided to form a secret group of men essentially to talk shit about organized religion, and shift the focus back to logic and science. On May 1, 1776 he and four other University of Ingolstadt students gathered for the first meeting of the Perfectibilists. Two years later, Weishaupt decided the Perfectibilists name sounded weird, so he changed it to Illuminati (but not before seriously contemplating “The Bee Order.” WTF, Adam.). Eventually he got an animal reference, however, by adopting the Owl of Minerva as the group’s symbol.

Adam Weishaupt, founder of the Illuminati. (Wikimedia)

The early days of Illuminati were basically a bunch of nerdy Dungeons and Dragons kids with a Dead Poets Society complex who really wanted to grow up and become Scientologists.

Without much of an original plan other than sheer frustration with his own powerlessness, Weishaupt looked to the Freemasons as inspiration for his mega-cool secret brotherhood (no women, Jews, or Pagans allowed). The Freemasons were a Western fraternal network that preached morality through symbolic rituals and initiations into three different degrees of Masonry. Weishaupt envied Freemasonry’s organization and power but basically wanted his own version of freethinkers. So he joined the Freemasons to covertly study its structure, all the while recruiting more Illuminati.

Weishaupt enlisted early Illuminati member Xavier von Zwack to establish a strong membership base in Munich. Zwack was able to pull a few influential members who weren’t all trust fund college kids. Besides that whole no-women-or-Jews thing, ideal candidates were “rich, docile, willing to learn, and aged 18–30.”

When the Illuminati had gathered more members, Weishaupt applied for a separate lodge under the Freemason umbrella. He called the new lodge Theodore of the Good Council, intending to flatter Charles Theodore, Elector of Bavaria, and invited all his Illuminati recruits to join. Shady af.

In 1780, the Illuminati recruited the man who would become its most influential member, Adolph Knigge. Still in his twenties, Knigge had achieved the highest level of the Freemason order but became frustrated by the lack of growth potential. By this time, the Illuminati had established three of its own grades: Novice, Minerval, and Illuminated Minerval, with Weishaupt touting the highest level’s “extensive” initiations. Knigge was intrigued and quickly reached the Minerval level by studying the required liberal literature, which was banned in Bavaria, and recruiting more members. Soon, he’d completed all the levels Weishaupt had created. In an attempt to buy time, Weishaupt brainstormed what came next. Knigge called his bluff, then proposed some ideas of his own.

Knigge first suggested filling more senior positions within the Illuminati group, as most were still occupied by immature students. Then he massaged the group’s messaging, which had turned anti-religious by this point and served to detract some members. On January 20, 1782, he revised the system of Illuminati orders:

  • Class I — The nursery (the Noviciate, the Minerval, and Illuminatus minor)
  • Class II — The Masonic grades (“blue lodge” grades of Apprentice, Companion, and Master; and higher “Scottish” grades of Scottish Novice and Scottish Knight)
  • Class III — The Mysteries (lesser grades of Priest and Prince; higher grades of Mage and King)

By the spring of 1782, the Illuminati had reached 300 members under Knigge’s influence.

Meanwhile, through a series of ugly restructurings, Lodge Theodore found itself wholly independent from the Freemasons, meaning the Illuminati had freedom to pursue whatever weird initiation rituals they saw fit. (Most of the early years seemed more like an administrative comedy of errors than actual work, kind of like The Office.) Politically frustrated Freemasons defected for the Illuminati and its more “eclectic” approach, apparently devoid of power structures like Martinism. By January 1773, the group had seven lodges across Germany. By 1784, total Illuminati membership numbered between 650 and 2,500 (such is the inexact arithmetic of secret societies).

Once it recruited a bunch of influential scholars and benefactors, word spread of the Illuminati’s growing reputation. As a result, competing brotherhoods used their own baller members to warn against its liberal agenda. Then Weishaupt and Knigge had a falling out over the Priest ritual— yada yada yada—Knigge resigned, members got sloppy, and news of the “secret” order became common knowledge. Shockingly, it turned out some of the order’s most influential members held public office. In a fit of rage against the group that was so thirsty to please him, Charles Theodore outlawed all secret societies by March 1785, under penalty of death.

Secret societies got a bad name over the years, in part for their weird secretive rituals. (Keystone/Getty Images)

After some quiet years, author John Robinson released Proofs of a Conspiracy in 1797, an anti-Freemasonry book that accused such societies of continuing to influence a New World Order. Spinoff books and theories circulated into the 20th century, demonizing the Illuminati as a sinister, pagan cult when in fact its origins amounted to nothing more than a dried up German circle jerk.

Still, concerns over the Illuminati remained relatively quiet until the mid-1990s. Then Prodigy released his 1995 remix of LL Cool J’s “I Shot Ya.” He raps: “Illuminati want my mind, soul, and my body / Secret society trying to keep they eye on me.” Over the next few years, hip hop artists like AZ, the Wu-Tang Clan, and Dr. Dre coincidentally(?) invoked either the Illuminati or the New World Order. According to a Daily Beast breakdown, rapper Canibus’ 1998 single “Channel Zero” claims the government and astronomer Carl Sagan communicate with aliens, which also explains Roswell, duh. Armchair conspiracy theorists seized the opportunity to demonize successful black artists. Entertainers like Jay Z must have sold their souls to the devil if they’re rapping about it…And while we’re at it, so did Rihanna, Kanye, LeBron James, and Barack Obama.

The popularity of conspiracy books like Angels and Demons, coupled with 9/11 truthers and the growth of the web only fanned the crazy flames. Whenever a celebrity wears a triangle pattern, truthers accuse them of referencing the eye on the back of a dollar bill, and its Masonic origins. If Beyoncé likes goats, she obviously worships Baphomet, a pagan deity.

And she probably put these goats in these trees, too. #illuminati

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