Why the Illuminati and Other Secret Societies Are So Intriguing

Secret societies fuel our imaginations, from the Illuminati to the Freemasons to the Odd Fellows. But what is it that they actually do, and why are they as fascinating as they are frightening?

By Sam Walters
Jun 13, 2024 6:00 PM
Illustration of the Eye of Providence
The “Eye of Providence,” a single eye inside a swirl of light or a triangle, is an iconic symbol of several secret societies, including the Illuminati and the Freemasons. (Credit: GeorgePeters/Getty Images)


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The Bavarian city of Ingolstadt was no stranger to secrets. It wasn’t in May 1776, anyway, when it became the birthplace of the Illuminati. Shrouded in shadows, this secret society convened for close to 10 years, circulating its ideas without censure or condemnation. It wasn’t until 1785 that its activities were banned, as an active conspiracy against the state of Bavaria.

The Illuminati and other secret societies inspire our imaginations, both for better and for worse. There’s something about them that’s irresistibly intriguing. But why? What are they, actually, and what do they do? What makes them so fascinating, both for insiders and for outsiders looking in?

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What Is A Secret Society?

In some secret societies, traditional rites and rituals involve the representation or reenactment of the organization’s origins, including those of the Freemasons represented above. (Credit: Tom Chalky - Digital Vintage Library/Getty Images)

In the simplest sense of the term, a secret society is any organization that maintains a measure of secrecy, whether it conceals its aims, its activities, its membership, or any other aspect of its operations. In fact, though the specific definition of the term is still disputed, descriptions of secret societies tend to stress the sharing of secret knowledge and the administration of secret rites, rituals, and initiations, meant to set members and non-members apart.

“Those who know the secret are the insiders, ‘us.’ Those who do not know the secret are the outsiders, ‘them,’” author Alan Axelrod argues in The International Encyclopedia of Secret Societies and Fraternal Orders. “Indeed, the nature of the secret is relatively unimportant. It is the sharing of the secret that really matters.”

The Types of Secret Societies

Though the majority of modern secret societies fulfill a social function — fostering friendships, creating communities, circulating ideas, and carrying out charitable services — there are many other types of secret societies, too. Some secret societies safeguard religious secrets and trade skills. Others promote particular political aims, reactionary as well as revolutionary. Others still fulfill several simultaneous functions, all at once, and all from the shadows.

The driving forces of secret societies are so diverse that some scholars include the Mafia among them, as a criminally oriented organization, thanks to its oaths of silence and specific requirements for inclusion. “Even the Mafia,” Axelrod argues in The International Encyclopedia of Secret Societies and Fraternal Orders, “has its other aspects,” including its informal insurance for the families of fallen Mafiosi.

Whatever their purpose, secret societies play off our species’ ingrained sociality, strengthening the ties of insiders and igniting the interest of those on the outside. Our intrigue is basically built into our brains — a vestige of some of our oldest survival strategies.

Read More: How These 5 Cults Manipulated Their Followers

Why Secret Societies Are So Intriguing to Insiders

There’s no doubt that we are a distinctly social species. Since the beginning, we’ve stuck together, gathering in groups in order to survive. A wide spectrum of studies shows that the need to belong in groups of individuals with similar interests is imbedded in our biology. And secret societies, as groups of individuals with similar interests, may satiate that need, making members a part of something bigger than themselves.

Interestingly, the secrecy of secret societies may strengthen the sense of belonging they bestow to their members. Studies show that secrets not only signify the bonds between individuals but strengthen those bonds when divulged. “Sharing secrets is a prominent and dynamic feature of friendship, often serving as a cue to closeness and social connection,” asserts a 2023 paper in Personal Relationships. “Sharing secrets changes social distance and increases closeness,” asserts another, published in PLOS ONE.

To the members of secret societies, membership means that they are not alone. “They are someone special,” Axelrod asserts in The International Encyclopedia of Secret Societies and Fraternal Orders. “They are automatically among friends; they are privy to ‘secrets’ other people do not know.”

Why Secret Societies Are So Intriguing to Outsiders

Of course, a consequence of our innate need to gather in groups is our natural nosiness. We’re wired to take an interest in what other people are up to, particularly when it’s something they want under wraps. “People who were fascinated with the lives of others were simply more successful than those who were not,” writes social psychologist Francis McAndrew in “Gossip as a Social Skill,” an article all about the origins of our nosiness. “It would have been strongly favored by natural selection.”

It makes sense, then, that our imaginations soar at the activities of secret societies. But what is it that they actually do, from the ill-fated Illuminati to the Freemasons and Odd Fellows of today, still active after centuries of secrecy?

Read More: Was the World’s Most Mysterious Manuscript from the Middle Ages A Hoax?

The Illuminati

The Illuminati are frequently featured in the fantasies of conspiracy theorists, who have credited the order with an assortment of world-altering achievements, including the start of the French Revolution, since the 1700s. (Credit: Traveler1116/Getty Images)

A favorite among conspiracy theorists past and present, the Bavarian Order of the Illuminati arose in 1776, as a secret society of subversive thinkers. The order originated with Adam Weishaupt, a professor and philosopher at the University of Ingolstadt, who wanted to spread the ideas of the Enlightenment to the intellectuals and elites of the future.

The Illuminati Beliefs

Initially recruited from Weishaupt’s students at the University of Ingolstadt, the Illuminati were interested in reason and rational thought. Resisting the religious and political traditions that ruled their society, they sought to revolutionize the church and monarchy, reforming them in the interest of radical self-rule. Fostering the ideas of freedom and free speech, they gradually grew to more than 2,000 members in Bavaria and beyond.

What Did the Illuminati Do?

The order allowed its initiates to debate ideas that the powers that were would’ve certainly deemed dangerous. Members, initially dubbed “Perfectibilists” as an indication of their interest in progress, were divided into tiers, the first of which were “novices,” “minervals,” and “illuminated minervals.” All correspondence was sent in code, and all members were awarded classical aliases, such as “Spartacus,” to conceal their identities.

Disbanded by the Duke of Bavaria in 1785, the Illuminati were still shrouded in mystery at the time of their suppression. While some said that they went on to inspire revolutions, including the French Revolution, others said that they inspired nothing, as the sentiments of revolt were already on the rise without their influence. Still, the notion that the secret society stuck around, continuing its clash against authority, is an intriguing one (and survives in the popular conspiracy that the Illuminati are still pulling political strings today).

Read More: Three Historic Hoaxes That Duped The Masses, Scientists Or Media

The Freemasons

This illustration of famous Freemasons features George Washington and several other Founding Fathers of the United States, outfitted in the ritual regalia of the order. (Credit: Smithsonian Open Access)

One of the inspirations of the Illuminati and one of the oldest secret societies that’s still active, the Freemasons trace their origins to medieval England and Europe, where most stonemasons worked as “free” stonemasons, moving from city to city to construct the cathedrals of the Middle Ages. Wherever they went, they founded guilds that gradually turned into social and charitable clubs in the 1600s and 1700s, accepting “speculative” masons with no true ties to the trade, and modeling themselves after ancient fraternities.

The Freemasons Beliefs

The traditional secrets of the Freemasons were trade secrets, though they gradually grew to include secret sayings, gestures, and greetings that signaled an individual’s identity as a masonic member. As a social and charitable club, Freemasonry fosters fellowship, moral aid, and mutual assistance among like-minded men — and “men” is sometimes meant literally, as full-fledged membership is limited to men in many Freemason lodges today.

Though not a religion in and of itself, Freemasonry promotes compassion and charity and requires members to trust in a “Grand Architect of the Universe,” as well as an immortal soul. Admission is put up to a vote, and initiation is shrouded in secrecy, restricted to those who request it.

What Do the Freemasons Do?

Freemasons are divided into three main degrees based on the three main degrees of medieval masonry (entered apprentice, fellow of the craft, and master mason), each denoting a different level of familiarity and dedication to the lodge, and each with its own secrets and specialized lingo. Most lodges meet frequently, with meetings fulfilling some sort of social or charitable function, while also overseeing lodge logistics and elections.

Though not associated with any particular political ideology, Freemasons loomed large in the politics of the 1700s. Not only were they tied to the Enlightenment, in that they were said to provide equal opportunities to their initiates, but their elections embodied the ideals of the era. Their lodges thus attracted the intellectuals and revolutionaries of the time, including Voltaire, Montesquieu, Mozart, Benjamin Franklin, and George Washington, as well as more modern figures, from Buzz Aldrin to John Wayne.

Read More: Hollow Earth: A Journey Through 3 Centuries of Conspiracy Theory

The Odd Fellows

Among the many offshoots of the original Order of Odd Fellows are the Independent Order of Odd Fellows and Grand United Order of Odd Fellows, which were both brought to the U.S. in the 1800s. The latter, members of which are pictured above, welcomed Black Americans who were denied membership in other Odd Fellows offshoots in America due to their race. (Credit: Smithsonian Open Access)

Of course, the Illuminati and the Freemasons weren’t the only secret societies that flourished in the 1700s. Another was the Order of Odd Fellows. Formed by workers who worked odd jobs outside the traditionally organized trades of England, this order provided a place for individuals to find friends and financial support in times of trouble.

The Odd Fellows Beliefs

Insisting in the importance of friendship, the Odd Fellows were founded to improve the condition of man through charity and community aid. At the time of their founding, Odd Fellows were so invested in funding fellow Odd Fellows that their order was fashioned as a “poor man’s Freemasonry,” offering admittance to anyone who could afford the meager membership fee — a mere penny per visit. Though the initiation fee is steeper today, offshoots of the organization still thrive, including the Independent Order of Odd Fellows.

What Do the Odd Fellows Do?

Gathering together for socialization and support, the initial meetings of the Odd Fellows involved few of the trappings of a traditional secret society. That said, the organization and its offshoots did develop these trappings in time, with the Independent Order of Odd Fellows developing distinct initiation rituals and distinct degrees for initiates, for instance.

In their initiation rituals, initiates were blindfolded and brought before skeletons, sometimes real and sometimes artificial, to represent the mortality of mankind. Such skeletons are sometimes spotted in old Odd Fellows meeting places, and may play a part in Odd Fellows initiations today. Their presence does much to mystify the order and fuel fantasies about what secret societies do behind closed doors. It’s no wonder why: If skeletons are stuffed in the closets of one of the world’s most charitable orders, what’s inside the closets of the others?

Read More: How To Tell If A Conspiracy Theory Is Probably False

Article Sources:

Our writers at Discovermagazine.com use peer-reviewed studies and high-quality sources for our articles, and our editors review them for accuracy and trustworthiness. Review the sources used below for this article:

Sam Walters is a journalist covering archaeology, paleontology, ecology and evolution for Discover, along with an assortment of other topics. Before joining the Discover team as an assistant editor in 2022, Sam studied journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.

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