Top L to R: Illuminati's Eye of Minerva; Masonic Eye of Providence; Yale's Skull and Bones. Bottom L to R: Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa's “De occulta philosophia libri tres”; Baphomet; Eliphas Levi's pentagram. All images collected via Wikimedia Commons by Tanja M. Laden.
Conspiracy theorists, religious fanatics, and completely rational people alike will tell you that images such as the all-seeing eye, the pyramid, the pentagram, and the pagan idol Baphomet—not to mention skulls and various hand signals—are all part of a complex, coded iconography that attempts to exert control over the masses while subliminally advertising the power of the elite. Many have come to associate these symbols with the supposed "Illuminati," a mysterious society apparently belonging to one-percenters whose access to secret knowledge and enlightenment is denied to the rest of the us, forever cloaked in secrecy.
The real-life Illuminati sought to demystify and dismantle the complicated, problematic tenets and practices of organised Christianity in the 18th century. The Order was established as an alternative to another secret society, Freemasonry, and due to its nature as an impenetrable organisation, the Illuminati ironically became obfuscated itself. That ignited more speculation and analysis about what its purpose really was, and intrigue over it has only increased since.
To support the continuing image of the Illuminati as an enigmatic organisation, a visual lexicon has developed to go along with this mystique. Most of the symbols that we've come to associate with the Illuminati go back much further than the 18th century, and often have little or nothing to do with the original Order at all. In a way, the Illuminati's so-called symbolism reflects more about what we think we know (or don't know) about a mysterious group of people who may or may not gather regularly at the Bilderberg Conference. It's up for debate what imagery actually belongs or is attributed to the organisation itself—if it still exists. The fact that our questions, theories, and beliefs may never be answered or verified is actually what fuels and propels the myth of the Illuminati.
The aesthetics of the modern idea of the Illuminati appear to be a collection of various sigils from different clandestine groups such as the Gnostics, Hermetics, Knights Templar, Rosicrucians, and Freemasons (which the real-life Illuminati founders wanted to join, but evidently found too costly). America may have somehow been influenced by Enlightenment-era Bavarian Illuminati ideals. In fact, both the real Illuminati and the United States of America were officially founded the same year in 1776, just over a month apart. Coincidence... Or conspiracy? Interestingly, the only image directly related to the true historic Illuminati is the Owl of Athena, which references Greek Mythology and represents simple knowledge and wisdom.
It might be possible that the pyramid and the eye on the reverse side of the Great Seal of the United States, the U.S. government's method of authenticating documents like the dollar bill, were inspired by a secret order like the Freemasons, who continue to exist and joined forces with the Illuminati, giving birth to the "New World Order" conspiracy theory. In order to truly know what the Illuminati and/or Freemasons are all about, though, you'd have to go through various complicated and involved initiation rituals before you're permitted to peer out of the proverbial all-seeing eye atop a pyramid, and who knows what you'd see? Either way, you can get a kind of recreational high just thinking and talking about whether or not there's actually a secret order controlling the world, and that, precisely, is what continues to feed the creativity behind the symbolism.
Jay Z's "Roc" sign resembles a pyramid, and that may be the reason why his entertainment company is called Roc Nation. Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus' hands covering half their faces in photos might reference the all-seeing eye, and Rhianna's peace sign could be a sign honoring the horned god, Pan. But the likelihood of any of these celebrities sitting through lodge meetings and going through made-up initiation rituals are slim, and rather than being puppets of some kind of global totalitarian state, they could just be using semaphores for the public to believe they're part of the "Illuminati," which is more likely the case—not to mention the perfect embers to keep message boards and comment threads glowing.
Appropriation of so-called Illuminati symbolism, however, isn’t just confined to popular culture. As witnessed in the work of New York-based Edward Marshall Shenk, it’s in the art world, too. Shenk’s memes riff off right-wing, anti-Illuminati online propaganda, blurring the imagined divide between reality and paranoia, or fear and a reality that probably doesn’t exist. Just like the website harddawn.com, Shenk’s satire is sophisticated, subtle, and simultaneously terrifying yet hilarious. Anything with “Illuminati” in its headlines seems to provoke irrational responses from Internet audiences that don’t really know where they stand with the murky issues at hand, yet somehow still have a lot to say about them. In this way, Illuminati symbolism provides fodder for a dialogue about control in general, and while it may not be “real” in the sense that it’s coming from the actual Illuminati, the art reflects society’s fascinations with secrecy and systems they don’t quite understand—but desperately want to.
Today, the world's vision of the Illuminati is seen through a lens where all of its secret societies have converged, offering up raw material for occult-minded individuals and artists, alike. It is the very accumulation of these images and rituals that creates new religions and systems that continue to draw on lengthening histories, mounting philosophies, and emerging "sciences." Thanks to the internet, secret knowledge is now available to everyone—as long as you know where to look. Art like Shenk’s illustrates the fact that we don't necessarily need to worship a possibly fictitious entity to have our minds controlled by our beliefs, but we can still glean inspiration from it. As far as believing, we can look to all the ancients and seek our own truths. Then by definition, we'll be part of the "Illuminati," too.