Adam Weishaupt probably never thought that one day his group would be associated with marijuana, Mountain Dew, and Major League Gaming. If you believe everything you read online, the Illuminati counts a wide range of big names in its ranks, including Beyoncé, Snoop Dogg, and Lady Gaga. 240 years after its founding, the Illuminati has now become a widely popular internet meme.
Weishaupt, a German philosopher born in 1748, would probably have been perplexed by internet memes in general, but much like the Illuminati itself, sometimes life works in mysterious ways.
The Illuminati was a secretive organization founded in Bavaria on May 1, 1776, after Weishaupt was pushed away from freemasonry by the prohibitively high costs of membership, and the belief that freemasonry offered little benefit. The order aimed to help its members work together “to attain the highest possible degree of morality and virtue, and to lay the foundation for the reformation of the world by the association of good men to oppose the progress of moral evil.”
By most accounts, the group sunk into irrelevance after a series of decrees from Charles Theodore, Elector of Bavaria, outlawed such groups around 1785. Weishaupt fled Bavaria, writing about the Illuminati from Gotha before passing away in 1830, leaving the group as little more than an obscure footnote.
Today, however, the Illuminati has taken on a whole new meaning. KnowYourMeme traces the resurgence of the Illuminati as an internet meme to May 13, 2005, when a user called “New Rising Sun” posted an entry for the Illuminati in Urban Dictionary. Far from having dissolved around 1785, “New Rising Sun” claimed that the group is alive and well, consisting of international heads of state, members of the media and heads of banks.
“Their ultimate goal is for a one world government which they will control, also a one world currency, and they want control and ownership of all land, property, resources and people,” the definition reads.
To some on the internet, it’s less about the idea that the Illuminati still exists today, and more about the ideas that it stood for. The Illuminati subreddit, with over 3,000 subscribers, seeks to take the group’s ideas as inspiration rather than try to claim it still exists. “The society’s goals were to oppose superstition, obscurantism, religious influence over public life and abuses of state power,” the subreddit description reads. “This is a subreddit dedicated to achieving those goals.”
The idea shifted into more of a mainstream internet joke around 2012, although it’s hard to put a firm date on it. It was around that time, though, when posts like this one started claiming that they’ve found links to the Illuminati in the media. Normally these jokes are based around the Eye of Providence, found on the reverse of the U.S. dollar bill, which bears resemblance to a symbol used by Freemasons. S Brent Morris, an author of books on freemasonry, explains that the two symbols are different, but that hasn’t stopped the notion of an all-seeing triangle eye with links to shadowy groups from creeping its way into mainstream media.
Accusations that the Illuminati are behind basically anything involving triangles has led to a range of satirical groups, though, with the “Ilerminaty” subreddit keeping an eye out for any sign of triangles in daily life.
Others have sought to align themselves with the Illuminati by claiming their product has ties to the shadowy group.
The meme has fed into the gaming montage subculture, where gamers upload videos of themselves onto YouTube scoring epic wins and the like. These videos have led to a parody subreddit that uses a lot of the same themes the original gaming videos used. Mountain Dew, Doritos, 4/20, and overuse of special effects are all common tropes. And yes, any sign of triangles prompts X-Files music and accusations of Illuminati involvement.
It’s been over 200 years since it was outlawed, but somehow, the Illuminati is more popular than ever before.