The Dan Brown phenomenon    Angels & Demons: Shedding light on the Illuminati
The Illuminati are a controversial secret society, said to be the true rulers of the world. But are the allegations of the conspiracy theories true, or more imaginary than fictional plotlines?
by Philip Coppens

In “Angels & Demons”, Dan Brown promotes a secret society known as the Illuminati into a group that have been fighting the Vatican for centuries, trying to promote science over faith and the suppression of knowledge. In other movies, such as “Tomb Raider”, it is not Robert Langdon but Lara Croft who takes on the Illuminati; here, they are seen as the secret controllers of the world – a role they also play in various conspiracy theories. The historical Illuminati were found by Adam Weishaupt, a professor at the University of Ingolstadt, on May 1, 1776 in Ingolstadt. Illuminati means the enlightened, and the movement is believed to have been a vehicle for freethinkers, seeing Weishaupt was the first lay professor of canon law and therefore very much a sign of his times – one that saw the worldly power of the Church slowly waning. However, the organisation did not have a great or long future: in 1784, the government of Karl Theodor banned all secret societies – including, of course, the Illuminati. The end… or not?

In death, the Illuminati have become far more famous than they ever were in real life. They have, in fact, become the subject of near-endless speculation. Specifically, some argue that the movement had from the very start a political agenda, namely to infiltrate and overthrow the government and that this is why Theodor banned all secret societies. Furthermore, that the Illuminati had prepared for this possibility and had therefore made plans for their own survival. It is this scenario that Dan Brown toys with in this novel, and which likes at the basis of many conspiracy theories.

Brown plays with the historical Illuminati, and lets Langdon discover that rather than extinct, the organisation is still very much alive. Their mission, as Langdon realises, is that within 24 hours, the Illuminati will strike at the heart of the Vatican, where they have placed a quarter of a gram of antimatter, stolen from CERN in Switzerland. However, it needs to be underlined that few readers of the book seem to have fully grasped the notion that Brown’s book reveals that there are, in the end, no Illuminati at all. Instead, an evil manipulator, working alone, has used Illuminati imagery and like, thus making people believe that the Illuminati are still active, while he is actually solely responsible… and the secret society is indeed long dead. Weishaupt’s choice of name for his organisation was not original. In fact, the first recorded reference to a group of enlightened ones comes from the 2nd century AD, when it was adopted as the title of a group founded by Montanus, a former priest of the Cult of Cybele. He had converted to Christianity and then began his movement. The group included prophetesses known as Priscilla, and Maximilla. The members underwent frenzied religious experiences, regarded as messages from the Holy Ghost. Hence, no doubt, why they believed they were “enlightened”.

Centuries later, there was a Spanish group known as Alumbrado – the Enlightened. They existed in the 16th century and claimed that a soul at one point of development could enter in direct contact with the Holy Ghost. A French group known as the Illuminés settled in France in 1623, arriving from Seville in Spain. But France had a more famous movement, known as the Illuminati of Avignon. Founded by Don Antoine Joseph de Pernetti and the Polish Count Starost Grabianca in 1770, it moved to Montpellier in 1778. Although some claim that they still existed in 1812, most agree they disappeared at the time of the French Revolution of 1789. Weishaupt’s Illuminati was therefore contemporary with those of Avignon, and it is also clear that rather than being truly unique, Weishaupt’s group was just one in a longer series of “enlightened” groups. Today, many conspiracy theorists use the term “Illuminati” rather loosely: rather than any particular secret society, most use the term as a fashionable word for “them” – the secret masters, the manipulators behind the scenes, the ones who dictate commands to our politicians. As such, the choice of settling on the term Illuminati is rather disappointing, for immediately discredits the conspiracy theorists in the eyes of academics and critics. Though the historical Illuminati had appeal, they were never in any position to go against the Church or Bavarian government. They themselves clearly never suffered from this delusion – though some of the modern more outlandish conspiracy theorists do.

Today, the “Illuminati” – as opposed to the historical Illuminati – are seen as those trying to establish the so-called “New World Order”, which is clearly not a theme used by Dan Brown in the strictest of concepts. But with the success of “Angels & Demons”, it is clear that the historical confusion and the fame of both the Illuminati and the “Illuminati” will only broaden – just as it happened with the Priory of Sion in the case of “The Da Vinci Code”.

Today, there are, of course, enlightened ones, and people who have ambitions that the conspiracy theorists see as objectionable. That is their privilege, but they should not pretend it is a “secret”. For example, the American banker David Rockefeller joined the Council on Foreign Relations as its youngest-ever director in 1949 and subsequently became chairman of the board from 1970 to 1985; today he serves as honorary chairman. None of this is secret. In fact, in 2002, Rockefeller authored his autobiography “Memoirs” wherein, on page 405, he writes: “For more than a century ideological extremists at either end of the political spectrum have seized upon well-publicized incidents … to attack the Rockefeller family for the inordinate influence they claim we wield over American political and economic institutions. Some even believe we are part of a secret cabal working against the best interests of the United States, characterizing my family and me as ‘internationalists’ and of conspiring with others around the world to build a more integrated global political and economic structure – one world, if you will. If that’s the charge, I stand guilty, and I am proud of it.”

It is a fact that the likes of Rockefeller have donated large sums of money to see their ideas fulfilled. Their family is not alone. In “Angels & Demons”, Langdon includes the Bilderberg Group as a possible financier of the Illuminati. And with the Bilderberg, it becomes more interesting – and conspiratorial. The Bilderberg Group meets once a year and is seen as a who’s who of politics and industry convening in secret – not often, however, with much success, seeing a small but dedicated group of protesters uses the meetings to make their opinions known about the group. The meeting is seen as a brainstorm session about the challenges and opportunities of international politics and economics.

Seen as the brainchild of Joseph Retinger and Jean Monet and convened by the husband to the Dutch Queen in 1954 in one of the hotels of the Bilderberg chain – hence the name – it is less known that the idea – if not financing – came from the CIA. This conclusion has been reached by Dr. Gerard Aalders of the Dutch Institute for War Documentation. Aalders claims that Prince Bernhard was used by the CIA and he claims his research is the first time physical evidence has been uncovered that shows the hand of the CIA in the meeting’s organisation. However, Aalders has so far been unable to prove that Bernhard knew of the CIA’s support, though he argues it is more than likely, if only because the Prince was very close to two successive Directors of Central Intelligence.

The 1954 Bilderberg meeting was attended by the likes of David Rockefeller, C.D. Jackson, Denis Healy and Gen. Walter Bedell Smith. The latter was Director of Central Intelligence and it was he who asked Eisenhower adviser to develop the idea.

Their annual meeting is attended by ca. 130 of the world’s leaders, yet no official list of invitees is produced; no reporters are invited; no press conferences are organised; no meetings are taken. With no paper trail, no wonder the set-up is an invitation for conspiracy theorists. But perhaps those conspiracy theorists should realise that they are being set up, and that this aura of mystique is precisely what the CIA always wanted it to be? Disinformation, after all, is a prime preoccupation of many intelligence agencies. In the novel, Langdon claims that Freemasonry, no doubt one of the most controversial secret societies, was created to shield the Illuminati when they were being persecuted by the Church. Weishaupt did become a Freemason at a lodge in Munich in 1777, suggesting the creation of his secret society opened certain other doors, which he walked through. But if Langdon/Brown was correct, it only had partial success, for the Vatican eventually stated that no Catholic was allowed to become a member of Freemasonry – a directive not always followed to the letter and since overturned.

Langdon is also able to uncover the Church of Illumination, the headquarters of the Illuminati, located inside the Castel Sant’Angelo, within spitting distance of the Vatican. The castle was originally the mausoleum of Emperor Hadrian and was renamed the Castle of Angels in the 6th century, when Pope Gregory the Great witnessed a vision of St Michael that ended a terrible plague. He also made it into fortress and constructed a tunnel from it to the Vatican, in case of…

Few have observed that the castle has a highly geometric design: the exterior is a pentagram, with the construction of the castle itself a square, with a circle inside. We are therefore squaring the circle, inside a pentagram. One would think both conspiracy theorists and symbologists like Langdon (read: Brown) would make something more of this?

In the centre of the “bottom” of the pentagram, is the Ponte Sant’Angelo, the Bridge of Angels, decorated with works of angels, including one sculpted by Bernini, that other hero of “Angels & Demons”. Brown also leaves an interesting connection unexplored – no doubt because he was unaware of it. In “The Da Vinci Code”, he uses St Sulpice and the gnomon inside as a “red herring” in the hunt for the Grail. But St Sulpice is seen as the headquarters of an “Angelic Society”, a group of people – dare one call it a secret society? – who had a special bond with their guardian angel; specifically, each member had manifested their guardian angel, as written down by several French writers like Maurice Barrès and Anatole France, and also visible in the works of e.g. Jean Cocteau – claimed to have been a secret grandmaster of the Priory of Sion. In fact, the famous quote of ET IN ARCADIA EGO was said, by the likes of French writer Maurice Barrès, to have been a “call sign” of those that were members of this Angelic Society.

Interestingly, in the novel, the English poet Milton is said to have written the verse that will solve the mystery of the location of the Illuminati Lair in Rome. In reality, Milton himself had a strange fascination with the Angelic Society. Langdon’s attempt to unravel the Illuminati plot also leads to some deaths inside the Swiss Guard. Commander Olivetti of the Swiss Guard is initially sceptical of Langdon’s conspiracy theory; his second in command, Captain Rocher, is killed by Lt. Chartrand, a young Swiss Guard, who believes that Rocher is an Illuminatus. Shortly before Brown wrote the novel, the Commander of the Swiss Guard – and his wife – had indeed been murdered by a young Swiss Guard, who then committed suicide. The tragedy was immediately ruled as a personal vendetta between the two men, but this propaganda soon began to disintegrate – though has not received the full publicity one would expect to see from a rare and most interesting murder in the Vatican. At this moment in time, most of the researchers into this crime are convinced that the young Swiss Guard was carrying out a secret investigation into the Commander, who had just been elected, and who was believed to have connections with Opus Dei. It is believed that “factions” – some pointing the fingers to “the Freemasons” – wanted to stop the progress of Opus Dei within the walls of the Vatican, and therefore disposed of its plant. But, by touching upon Opus Dei, of course, that brings us back to “The Da Vinci Code”.