10 Things You Might Not Know About the Illuminati

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eric1513/iStock via Getty Images Plus

If you're a proponent of conspiracy theories, you might believe that there's a secret organization that covertly controls every aspect of society, from the banks, to the government, and even our entertainment industries. Yes, we're talking about the Illuminati, a group that supposedly consists of the world’s most powerful people. Beyonce and Jay-Z are rumored to be members (along with a host of other celebrities), and the group is said to be behind some of the last century’s most historically important events, like the assassination of John F. Kennedy. But what exactly is the Illuminati—and do they even exist? Let’s dive in to a brief history of this notorious and mysterious group.

1. The Illuminati was once a real organization.

Though there were a number of early Illuminati-like groups, things really kicked off with the Bavarian Illuminati, a secret society founded on May 1, 1776, in what was then known as the Electorate of Bavaria (part of modern-day Germany). The group was founded by Adam Weishaupt, a philosopher and professor at the University of Ingolstadt. At the school—which was heavily influenced by Jesuit doctrine—Weishaupt (a former Jesuit) had a hard time finding acceptance for his secular and liberal thinking. He wanted to connect with like-minded free-thinkers, so he decided to start his own secret society, and The Order of the Illuminati was born.

2. The Illuminati's goal was to encourage a rational society.

While there are differing descriptions of the group’s stated goals, the Illuminati's main mission was in line with the values of the Enlightenment: The group sought to promote rational thinking and knowledge. Weishaupt said that current systems "leave us under the dominion of political and religious prejudices," whereas the Illuminati “frees ... from all religious prejudices; cultivates the social virtues; and animates them by a great, a feasible, and speedy prospect of universal happiness, in a state of liberty and moral equality, freed from the obstacles which subordination, rank, and riches, continually throw in our way.”

3. The Illuminati wasn't always called the Illuminati.

Originally, Weishaupt called his group the “Perfectibilists.” However, the founder quickly realized how silly that sounded and tried out a few other names, including The Bee Order (yes, really), before eventually landing on The Order of the Illuminati.

4. The Illuminati had strict membership requirements.

The Illuminati were an exclusive group of rich, successful men; no women or Jews were admitted into their ranks. Five men, all from the University of Ingolstadt, attended that first meeting in 1776. Any new members had to be vetted and approved by the existing group. Membership requirements included being well-educated and wealthy, having a strong reputation, and coming from a good family. They also had to be 30 years old or younger—the group believed anyone older to be too conservative and rigid in their ways. The group grew quickly, though, in part because the first members joined the Freemasons, another group for independent thinkers, to recruit other men—and, at its largest, had up to 2000 members, including doctors, lawyers, politicians, and intellectuals.

5. Members of the Illuminati worked their way through levels of enlightenment.

After joining, members of The Order of the Illuminati worked their way through a series of “levels” to show their progress toward enlightenment. Originally, the Illuminati had three different “levels of enlightenment” that members could achieve: novices, minervals, and illuminated minervals. (The Owl of Minerva was the group’s original symbol; Minerva was the Roman goddess of wisdom, and the Owl of Minerva symbolizes intelligence and wisdom and was a popular icon of independent, progressive thinkers of the era.)

However, a few years after its founding, a member named Baron von Knigge revised the system into as many as 13 levels, also known as “degrees,” which were then grouped into three classes. Von Knigge had been a member of the Freemasons before turning to the Illuminati, and his system was based on that of his former group. Reaching the highest level meant a member had achieved “philosophical illumination,” according to National Geographic, and he was given the title of “king.”

6. Members of the Illuminati used pseudonyms.

All Illuminati members were given pseudonyms that represented historical or important figures. For example, Weishaupt was known as “Spartacus” and von Knigge as “Philo.” Correspondence was written in cipher and even things like town names were replaced with an arbitrary word. It’s said that when the government raided member’s homes after shutting down the organization, instructions for making invisible ink were found.

7. The Illuminati were exposed by one of their own.

The original Bavarian Illuminati was in existence for less than a decade, from 1776 to 1785. A former member named Joseph Utzschneider was responsible for shutting them down. Utzschneider wrote a letter to the Grand Duchess of Bavaria that outed the group and their progressive beliefs (though it’s likely some of his claims were exaggerated). The Grand Duchess told her husband, the Duke of Bavaria, who first issued an edict in 1784 that banned the creation of any society not previously authorized by law, and then followed that up a year later with a new rule in 1785 that explicitly banned the secret society, and in 1787, membership was made punishable by death. The group was disbanded and Weishaupt was banished from Bavaria. According to most experts, this was the end of the Illuminati, though there are hundreds of conspiracy theories that suggest the group is very much still alive and running.

8. Conspiracy theories about the Illuminati began almost as soon as the order was shut down.

In 1797, physicist, mathematician, and later-in-life conspiracy theorist John Robison published a book called Proofs of a Conspiracy, in which he accused The Order of the Illuminati of infiltrating the Freemasons and helping to start the French Revolution.

This book eventually made its way to George Washington, a Master Mason, who had just wrapped up his time as president. After reading it, Washington wrote a letter intending to dispel the threat of the Illuminati, though his simply addressing the group only stoked conspiracy theories.

Similar writings and accusations followed, and public chatter about Illuminati conspiracies would die down and flare up again throughout the next centuries. There are dozens if not hundreds of conspiracy theories claiming that The Order of the Illuminati is still very much alive and well, and that they’re quietly working under the radar to establish a New World Order (the idea that a small group of very powerful people are working behind the scenes to put in place an authoritarian government that would rule the whole world). There is zero proof of that.

9. According to conspiracy theories, some of the world's biggest stars and historical figures are members of the Illuminati.

There are rumors that some of the world’s biggest pop stars and Hollywood celebrities are actually members of the Illuminati. Dr. Dre, Madonna, Bono, Justin Bieber, Nicki Minaj, Eminem, Whitney Houston, Katy Perry ... the list goes on, but at the top sit Jay-Z and Beyoncé. In all of these cases, it’s speculated that these stars owe their success to the help of the secret organization. (It’s relevant to note here that Beyoncé shut down those rumors in the first verse of her 2016 song “Formation”: “Y’all haters corny with that Illuminati mess.”) And it’s not just modern-day entertainers; historical figures such as Thomas Jefferson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Henry Kissinger, Winston Churchill, and John D. Rockefeller are rumored to have been involved with the Illuminati, too.

10. Rumor has it the Illuminati headquarters is located at Denver International Airport.

Since opening in 1995—more than a year late and $2 billion over budget—the Denver International Airport has found itself at the center of a variety of Illuminati-related conspiracy theories. The airport has a time capsule set to be opened in 2094 that’s emblazoned with icons of a Masonic square and compass, a symbol of the Freemasons—and, by conspiratorial extension, the Illuminati. There are also plaques stating that DEN was funded by the "New World Airport Commission" (hmmm, sounds an awful lot like New World Order, doesn’t it?) and rumors that the airport sits above a secret, underground Illuminati headquarters where the world’s elite will live after the apocalypse. The whole thing is wild speculation, but DEN has leaned into the theories—check out its #DENFILES website for some fun information.

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7 Pieces of Reading Advice From History’s Greatest Minds

When it came to books, Albert Einstein subscribed to the "oldie but goodie" mentality. He wasn't the only one.
When it came to books, Albert Einstein subscribed to the "oldie but goodie" mentality. He wasn't the only one.
Lucien Aigner/Three Lions/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

If there’s one thing that unites philosophers, writers, politicians, and scientists across time and distance, it’s the belief that reading can broaden your worldview and strengthen your intellect better than just about any other activity. When it comes to choosing what to read and how to go about it, however, opinions start to diverge. From Virginia Woolf’s affinity for wandering secondhand bookstores to Theodore Roosevelt’s rejection of a definitive “best books” list, here are seven pieces of reading advice to help you build an impressive to-be-read (TBR) pile.

1. Read books from eras past // Albert Einstein

albert einstein at home circa 1925
Albert Einstein poses at home in 1925 with a mix of old and new books.
General Photographic Agency/Getty Images

Keeping up with current events and the latest buzz-worthy book from the bestseller list is no small feat, but Albert Einstein thought it was vital to leave some room for older works, too. Otherwise, you’d be “completely dependent on the prejudices and fashions of [your] times,” he wrote in a 1952 journal article [PDF].

“Somebody who reads only newspapers and at best books of contemporary authors looks to me like an extremely near-sighted person who scorns eyeglasses,” he wrote.

2. Don’t jump too quickly from book to book // Seneca

seneca the younger
Seneca the Younger, ready to turn that unwavering gaze on a new book.
The Print Collector via Getty Images

Seneca the Younger, a first-century Roman Stoic philosopher and trusted advisor of Emperor Nero, believed that reading too wide a variety in too short a time would keep the teachings from leaving a lasting impression on you. “You must linger among a limited number of master thinkers, and digest their works, if you would derive ideas which shall win firm hold in your mind,” he wrote in a letter to Roman writer Lucilius.

If you’re wishing there were a good metaphor to illustrate this concept, take your pick from these gems, courtesy of Seneca himself:

“Food does no good and is not assimilated into the body if it leaves the stomach as soon as it is eaten; nothing hinders a cure so much as frequent change of medicine; no wound will heal when one salve is tried after another; a plant which is often moved can never grow strong. There is nothing so efficacious that it can be helpful while it is being shifted about. And in reading of many books is distraction.”

3. Shop at secondhand bookstores // Virginia Woolf

virginia woolf
Virginia Woolf wishing she were in a bookstore.
Culture Club/Getty Images

In her essay “Street Haunting,” Virginia Woolf described the merits of shopping in secondhand bookstores, where the works “have come together in vast flocks of variegated feather, and have a charm which the domesticated volumes of the library lack.”

According to Woolf, browsing through used books gives you the chance to stumble upon something that wouldn’t have risen to the attention of librarians and booksellers, who are often much more selective in curating their collections than secondhand bookstore owners. To give us an example, she imagined coming across the shabby, self-published account of “a man who set out on horseback over a hundred years ago to explore the woollen market in the Midlands and Wales; an unknown traveller, who stayed at inns, drank his pint, noted pretty girls and serious customs, wrote it all down stiffly, laboriously for sheer love of it.”

“In this random miscellaneous company,” she wrote, “we may rub against some complete stranger who will, with luck, turn into the best friend we have in the world.”

4. You can skip outdated scientific works, but not old literature // Edward Bulwer-Lytton

edward bulwer-lytton
An 1831 portrait of Edward Bulwer-Lytton, smug at the thought of people reading his novels for centuries to come.
The Print Collector/Getty Images

Though his novels were immensely popular during his lifetime, 19th-century British novelist and Parliamentarian Edward Bulwer-Lytton is now mainly known for coining the phrase It was a dark and stormy night, the opening line of his 1830 novel Paul Clifford. It’s a little ironic that Bulwer-Lytton’s books aren’t very widely read today, because he himself was a firm believer in the value of reading old literature.

“In science, read, by preference, the newest works; in literature, the oldest,” he wrote in his 1863 essay collection, Caxtoniana. “The classic literature is always modern. New books revive and redecorate old ideas; old books suggest and invigorate new ideas.”

To Bulwer-Lytton, fiction couldn't ever be obsolete, because it contained timeless themes about human nature and society that came back around in contemporary works; in other words, you can’t disprove fiction. You can, however, disprove scientific theories, so Bulwer-Lytton thought it best to stick to the latest works in that field. (That said, since scientists use previous studies to inform their work, you can still learn a ton about certain schools of thought by delving into debunked ideas—plus, it’s often really entertaining to see what people used to believe.) 

5. Check out authors’ reading lists for book recommendations // Mortimer J. Adler

mortimer j. adler in 1983
Mortimer J. Adler in 1983, happy to read the favorite works of his favorite authors.
George Rose/Getty Images

In his 1940 guide How to Read a Book, American philosopher Mortimer J. Adler talked about the importance of choosing books that other authors consider worth reading. “The great authors were great readers,” he explained, “and one way to understand them is to read the books they read.”

Adler went on to clarify that this would probably matter most in the philosophy field, “because philosophers are great readers of each other,” and it’s easier to grasp a concept if you also know what inspired it. While you don’t necessarily have to read everything a novelist has read in order to fully understand their own work, it’s still a good way to get quality book recommendations from a trusted source. If your favorite author mentions a certain novel that really made an impression on them, there’s a pretty good chance you’d enjoy it, too.

6. Reading so-called guilty pleasures is better than reading nothing // Mary Wollstonecraft

mary wollstonecraft in 1797
Mary Wollstonecraft in 1797, apparently demonstrating that a book with blank pages is worth even less than a novel.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

To the 18th-century writer, philosopher, and early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, just about all novels fell into the category of “guilty pleasures” (though she didn’t call them that). In A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, she disparaged the “stupid novelists, who, knowing little of human nature, work up stale tales, and describe meretricious scenes, all retailed in a sentimental jargon, which equally tend to corrupt the taste and draw the heart aside from its daily duties.”

If her judgment seems unnecessarily harsh, it’s probably because it’s taken out of its historical context. Wollstonecraft definitely wasn’t the only one who considered novels to be low-quality reading material compared to works of history and philosophy, and she was also indirectly criticizing society for preventing women from seeking more intellectual pursuits. If 21st-century women were confined to watching unrealistic, highly edited dating shows and frowned upon for trying to see 2019’s Parasite or the latest Ken Burns documentary, we might sound a little bitter, too.

Regardless, Wollstonecraft still admitted that even guilty pleasures can help expand your worldview. “Any kind of reading I think better than leaving a blank still a blank, because the mind must receive a degree of enlargement, and obtain a little strength by a slight exertion of its thinking powers,” she wrote. In other words, go forth and enjoy your beach read.

7. You get to make the final decision on how, what, and when to read // Theodore Roosevelt

theodore roosevelt in office in 1905
Theodore Roosevelt pauses for a quick photo before getting back to his book in 1905.
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division // No Known Restrictions on Publication

Theodore Roosevelt might have lived his own life in an exceptionally regimented fashion, but his outlook on reading was surprisingly free-spirited. Apart from being a staunch proponent of finding at least a few minutes to read every single day—and starting young—he thought that most of the details should be left up to the individual.

“The reader, the booklover, must meet his own needs without paying too much attention to what his neighbors say those needs should be,” he wrote in his autobiography, and rejected the idea that there’s a definitive “best books” list that everyone should abide by. Instead, Roosevelt recommended choosing books on subjects that interest you and letting your mood guide you to your next great read. He also wasn’t one to roll his eyes at a happy ending, explaining that “there are enough horror and grimness and sordid squalor in real life with which an active man has to grapple.”

In short, Roosevelt would probably advise you to see what Seneca, Albert Einstein, Mary Wollstonecraft, and other great minds had to say about reading, and then make your own decisions in the end.