The Illuminatus! Trilogy is a series of three novels written by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson purportedly between 1969 and 1971, and first published in 1975. The trilogy is a satirical, postmodern, science fiction-influenced adventure story; a drug-, sex- and magic-laden trek through a number of conspiracy theories, both historical and imaginary, which hinge around the authors' version of the Illuminati. The narrative often switches between third and first person perspectives and jumps around in time. It is thematically dense, covering topics like counterculture, numerology and Discordianism.
The trilogy comprises the books The Eye in the Pyramid, The Golden Apple and Leviathan. They were first published starting in September 1975, as three separate volumes, and in 1984 as an omnibus; they are now more commonly reprinted in the latter form. The trilogy won the Prometheus Hall of Fame Award, designed to honor classic libertarian fiction, in 1986. The authors went on to create several works, both fiction and nonfiction, that further discussed the themes of the trilogy, but no direct sequels were produced. Illuminatus! has been adapted for the stage, and has influenced several modern writers, musicians and games-makers. The popularity of the word "fnord" and the 23 enigma can both be attributed to the trilogy. It remains a seminal work of conspiracy fiction, predating Foucault's Pendulum and The Da Vinci Code by decades.
The trilogy's rambling story begins with an investigation by two New York City detectives (Saul Goodman and Barney Muldoon) into the bombing of Confrontation, a leftist magazine, and the disappearance of its editor, Joe Malik. Discovering the magazine's investigation into the John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr. assassinations, the two follow a trail of memos that suggest the involvement of powerful secret societies. They slowly become drawn into a web of conspiracy theories. Meanwhile, the magazine's reporter, George Dorn – having been turned loose without support deep in right-wing Mad Dog, Texas – is arrested for possession of drugs. He is jailed and physically threatened, at one point hallucinating about his own execution. The prison is bombed and he is bodily dragged into the hands of the Discordians, led by the enigmatic Hagbard Celine, captain of a golden submarine. Hagbard represents the Discordians in their eternal battle against the Illuminati, the conspiratorial organization that secretly controls the world. He finances his operations by smuggling illicit substances.
The plot meanders around the globe to such far-flung locations as Las Vegas, Nevada (where a potentially deadly, secret U.S. government-developed mutated anthrax epidemic has been accidentally unleashed); Atlantis (where Howard, the talking porpoise, and his porpoise aides help Hagbard battle the Illuminati); Chicago (where someone resembling John Dillinger was killed many years ago); and to the island of Fernando Poo (the location of the next great Cold War standoff between Russia, China and the USA).
The evil scheme uncovered late in the tale is an attempt to immanentize the eschaton (a catchphrase meaning "bringing about the end of the world" or "creating heaven on earth", and derived from a quotation in the works of Eric Voegelin). Here it refers to the secret scheme of the American Medical Association, an evil rock-and-roll band, to bring about a mass human sacrifice, the purpose of which is the release of enough "life-energy" to give eternal life to a select group of initiates, including Adolf Hitler. The AMA are four siblings who comprise four of the five mysterious Illuminati Primi. The identity of the fifth remains unknown for much of the trilogy. The first European "Woodstock" festival, held at Ingolstadt, Bavaria, Germany, is the chosen location for the sacrifice of the unwary victims, via the reawakening of hibernating Nazi battalions from the bottom of nearby Lake Totenkopf. The plot is foiled when, with the help of a 50-foot-tall incarnation of the goddess Eris, the four members of the AMA are killed: Wilhelm is killed by the monstrous alien being Yog-Sothoth, Wolfgang is shot by John Dillinger, Winifred is drowned by porpoises, and Werner is trapped in a sinking car.
The major protagonists, now gathered together onboard the submarine, are menaced by the Leviathan, a giant, pyramid-shaped single-cell sea monster that has been growing in size for hundreds of millions of years. The over-the-top nature of this encounter leads some of the characters to question whether they are merely characters in a book. This metafictional note is swiftly rejected (or ignored) as they turn their attention to the monster again. The threat is neutralized by offering up their onboard computer as something for the creature to communicate with to ease its loneliness. Finally, Hagbard Celine reveals himself as the fifth Illuminatus Primus — he has been toying with both sides and playing them off against each other in order to keep balance. He is a representative of the "true" Illuminati, whose aim is to spread the idea that everybody is free to do whatever they want at all times.
The titles of the three volumes or parts (the front covers were titled Illuminatus! Part I The Eye in the Pyramid, Illuminatus! Part II The Golden Apple and Illuminatus! Part III Leviathan) refer to recurring symbols that relate to elements of the plot. The Eye in the Pyramid refers to the Eye of Providence, which in the novel represents in particular the Bavarian Illuminati, and makes a number of appearances (for example, as an altar and a tattoo). The Golden Apple refers to the Golden apple of discord, from the Greek myth of the Judgement of Paris. In the trilogy it is used as the symbol of the Legion of Dynamic Discord, a Discordian group; the golden apple makes a number of appearances, for example, on a black flag, and as an emblem on a uniform. Leviathan refers to the Biblical sea monster Leviathan, which is a potential danger to Hagbard's submarine Leif Erickson (from the name of the icelandic discoverer of America).
The three parts of the trilogy are subdivided into five "books" named after the five seasons of the Discordian calendar. These books are also subdivided into ten "trips" named after the ten Sephirot. The last trip's conclusion is followed by fourteen appendices named after letters of the Hebrew Alphabet, which share their names with paths on the Tree of Life. The first page of the Appendix includes this mysterious note: "There were originally 22 appendices explaining the secrets of the Illuminati. Eight of the appendices were removed due to the paper shortage. They will be printed in heaven", while "Appendix Mem" states: "Where are the missing eight appendices? Answer: Censored." This appears to be another of the authors' jokes, although it is true that eight letters of the Hebrew Alphabet are missing, and the publisher required the authors to cut 500 pages from the book.
There was no specific division of labor in the collaborative writing process, although Shea's writing tended towards melodrama, while Wilson's parts tended towards satire. Wilson states in a 1976 interview conducted by Neal Wilgus:
According to Ken Campbell, who created a stage adaptation of Illuminatus! with Chris Langham, the writing process was treated as a game of one-upmanship between the two co-authors, and was an enjoyable experience for both:
The unusual end product did not appeal to publishers, and it took several years before anybody agreed to take it on. According to Wilson the division of Illuminatus! into three parts was a commercial decision of the publisher, not the authors, who had conceived it as a single continuous volume. Publishers Dell also required Shea and Wilson to cut 500 pages to reduce printing costs on what was seen as a risky venture, although Wilson states that most of the ideas contained therein made it into his later works. The idea that the top secrets of the Illuminati were cut from the books because the printer decided to trim the number of pages is a joke typical of the trilogy.
Dell first released these individual editions (with covers illustrated by Carlos Victor) in the USA in 1975, to favorable reviews and some commercial success. It became a cult favorite but did not cross over into large mainstream sales. In Britain, Sphere Books released the individual editions (with different cover art) in 1978. The individual editions sold steadily until 1984, when the trilogy was republished in a single omnibus volume for the first time. This collected edition lost the "what has gone before" introduction to The Golden Apple and the "Prologue" to Leviathan. Some of the material in that foreword, such as the self-destruct mynah birds (taught to say "Here, kitty-kitty-kitty!"), appears nowhere else in the trilogy, likely a result of the 500 pages of cuts demanded by Dell. The omnibus edition gave a new lease of life to flagging sales, and became the most commonly available form of the trilogy from then on.
The trilogy was translated and published in German, again both as separate volumes (the three covers of which formed a tryptych) and an omnibus. The face of J. R. "Bob" Dobbs was split across the first two volumes, despite the Church of the SubGenius not being featured in the novel (although Wilson had become a member). The Church was founded by Illuminatus! fans, and the image of "Bob" is widely considered to be a representation of Wilson himself.
Although the many conspiracy theories in the book are (presumably) imaginary, these are mixed in with enough truth to make them seem plausible. For example, the title of the first book, The Eye in the Pyramid, refers to the Eye of Providence, a mystical symbol which derives from the ancient Egyptian Eye of Horus and is rumored to be the symbol of the Bavarian Illuminati. Some of America's founding fathers are alleged by conspiracy theorists to have been members of this sect.
The books are loaded with references to the Illuminati, the Argenteum Astrum, many and various world domination plans, conspiracy theories and pieces of gnostic knowledge. Many of the odder conspiracies in the book are taken from unpublished letters to Playboy magazine, where the authors were working as associate editors while they wrote the novels. Among the oddest, the suggestion that Adam Weishaupt, founder of the Bavarian Illuminati, killed George Washington and took on his identity as President of the United States is often noted in Illuminati-conspiracy discussion. Proponents of this theory point to Washington's portrait on the United States one-dollar bill, which they suggest closely resembles the face of Weishaupt.
The word makes its first appearance in The Illuminatus! Trilogy without any explanation during an acid trip by Dr. Ignotum Per Ignotius and Joe Malik: "The only good fnord is a dead fnord". Several other unexplained appearances follow. Only much later in the story is the secret revealed, when Malik is hypnotized by Hagbard Celine to recall suppressed memories of his first-grade teacher conditioning his class to ignore the fnords: "If you don't see the fnord it can't eat you, don't see the fnord, don't see the fnord..." It is implied in the text that "fnord" is not the actual word used for this purpose, but rather a substitute, since anyone reading the book would not be able to see the actual word. Others have pointed out that fnord may instead/also be a symbol representing the "is" of identity condemned by Alfred Korzybski.
The prevalence of kinky sex in the story reflects the hippy ideal of "free love"; characters are both liberal-minded and promiscuous. The authors are well aware that it also provides an excuse for mere titillation: in a typically self-referential joke, a character in the story suggests the scenes exist: "only to sell a bad book filled with shallow characters pushing a nonsense conspiracy". Similarly, the books espouse the use of mind-altering substances to achieve higher states of consciousness, in line with the beliefs of key counterculture figures like Timothy Leary. Leary himself called the trilogy "more important than Ulysses or Finnegans Wake". This quote is blurbed on the covers or front page of its various printings.
This postmodern lack of belief in consensus reality is a cornerstone of the semi-humorous Chaos-based religion of Discordianism. Extracts from its sacred text, the Principia Discordia by Malaclypse the Younger, are extensively quoted throughout the trilogy. It incorporates and shares many themes and contexts from Illuminatus. Shea and Wilson dedicated the first part "To Gregory Hill and Kerry Thornley", the founders of the religion. The key Discordian practice known as "Operation Mindfuck" is exemplified in the character of Markoff Chaney (a play on the mathematical random process called Markov chain). He is an anti-social dwarf who engages in subtle practical joking in a deliberate attempt to cause social confusion. One such joke involves the forging and placing of signs that are signed by "The Mgt." (leading people to believe they are from "The Management" instead of "The Midget") that contain absurdities like "Slippery when wet. Maintain 50mph."
Several protagonists come to the realization that they are merely fictional characters, or at least begin to question the reality of their situation. George Dorn wonders early on if he "was in some crazy surrealist movie, wandering from telepathic sheriffs to homosexual assassins, to nympho lady Masons, to psychotic pirates, according to a script written in advance by two acid-heads and a Martian humorist". Hagbard Celine claims towards the climax that the entire story is a computer-generated synthesis of random conspiracies: "I can fool the rest of you, but I can't fool the reader. FUCKUP has been working all morning, correlating all the data on this caper and its historical roots, and I programmed him to put it in the form of a novel for easy reading. Considering what a lousy job he does at poetry, I suppose it will be a high-camp novel, intentionally or unintentionally."
The novel Telemachus Sneezed by the character Atlanta Hope with its catchphrase "What is John Guilt?" is a spoof of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. Ayn Rand is mentioned by name a few times in Illuminatus! herself, and her novel is alluded to by Hagbard who says, "If Atlas can Shrug and Telemachus can Sneeze, why can't Satan Repent?" Rand is also disparaged in one of the appendices concerning property, ostensibly written by Hagbard, which serves as an explanation of anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon's views on the subject. There are also references to Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 and his Gravity's Rainbow, an equally enormous experimental novel concerning liberty and paranoia that was published two years prior to Illuminatus! Wilson claims his book was already complete by the time he and Shea read Pynchon's novel (which went on to win several awards), but they then went back and made some modifications to the text before its final publication to allude to Pynchon's work. The phrase "So it goes" is repeatedly used in reference to death, a deliberate echoing of Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five.
Author H. P. Lovecraft is alluded to often, with many mentions of characters (e.g., Robert Harrison Blake, Henry Armitage, Klarkash-Ton), monsters (e.g., Tsathoggua, Yog-Sothoth), books (Necronomicon, Unaussprechlichen Kulten) and places (Miskatonic University) from his Cthulhu Mythos. He even appears himself as a character, as does his aunt Annie Gamwell and one of his acquaintances, Hart Crane. Interest in Lovecraft reached new heights in 1975, with two full-length biographies published in the same year as The Illuminatus! Trilogy.
The books have received laudatory reviews and comments from Playboy, Publishers Weekly, the American Library Association's Booklist magazine, Philadelphia Daily News, Berkeley Barb, Rolling Stone and Limit. The Village Voice called it "The ultimate conspiracy book ... the biggest sci-fi-cult novel to come along since Dune ... hilariously raunchy!" John White of the New Age Journal described it as:
The Fortean Times was also enthusiastic, whilst acknowledging the difficulties many readers would have attempting to follow the convoluted plot threads:
Illuminatus! even garnered some attention outside of literary criticism, having several pages devoted to it in a chapter on the American New Right in Architects of Fear: Conspiracy Theories and Paranoia in American Politics by George Johnson (1983).
It was also included in the "Slack Syllabus" in The Official Slacker Handbook by Sarah Dunn (1994), a satirical guide aimed at Generation X.
Wilson and Shea did plan to collaborate again on a true sequel, Bride of Illuminatus, taking place in 2026. It was rumored that it would feature a resurrected Winifred Saure (the only female member of the American Medical Association) exerting her influence through virtual reality. However, Robert Shea died in 1994 before this project came to fruition. An excerpt was published in Robert Anton Wilson's Trajectories Newsletter: The Journal of Futurism and Heresy in spring 1995. In a 1994 interview for FringeWare Review, Wilson suggested he may even "do a Son of Illuminatus later". Curiously, in Intelligence Agents by Timothy Leary (1996) he was credited with having already authored Son of Illuminatus in the 1980s.
Shea, meanwhile, never wrote another Illuminatus!-related book, although many of his later novels include references to the themes of that work. Locus magazine describes Shea's Saracen novels as "Deep background for the Illuminatus trilogy".
An audacious proposal by the English experimental theater director and actor Ken Campbell to stage Illuminatus! in its entirety at The National Theatre in London was met with surprisingly open arms, given its inordinate length: a cycle of five plays (The Eye of the Pyramid; Swift Kick Inc.; The Man Who Murdered God; Walpurgisnacht Rock; and Leviathan) each consisting of five 23-minute-long acts. It became the very first production at the National's Cottesloe Theatre space,, running from 4 March to 27 March 1977. It had first opened in Liverpool on 23 November 1976. The first night of the London version featured Robert Anton Wilson, accompanied by Shea, as a naked extra in the witches' sabbat scene. Wilson was delighted with the adaptation, saying:
In thanks, Wilson dedicated his Cosmic Trigger I: The Final Secret of the Illuminati (1977) to "Ken Campbell and the Science-Fiction Theatre Of Liverpool, England."
The 23-strong cast featured several actors, such as Jim Broadbent, David Rappaport and Chris Langham, who went on to successful film, stage and television careers. Broadbent alone played more than a dozen characters in the play. Bill Drummond designed sets for the show, and it was eventually seen (when it moved to London, with Bill Nighy then joining the cast) by the young Jimmy Cauty. The duo later went on to form the Illuminatus!-inspired electronica band The KLF. The play was later staged in Seattle, Washington in 1978.
An attempt was made to adapt the trilogy in comic book form beginning in the 1980s, by "Eye N Apple Productions" headed by Icarus!-23. Icarus! met with Wilson in 1984 and subsequently obtained permission from Wilson's agent to adapt the trilogy. Illuminatus! #1 was issued in July 1987, then reissued in substantially revised form later that year by Rip Off Press (who had published the original 4th edition of the Principia Discordia in 1970). A second issue followed in 1990, and a third in March 1991, after which the venture stalled (although several ashcans of the as yet unpublished Fourth Trip were distributed at comic book conventions in the Detroit and Chicago areas between 1991 and 2006). Each comic covered one "trip" from the original trilogy, so had further issues followed this pattern, there would have been ten issues in total. The "new first issue" contained a letter from Bob Shea, who had seen the first issue and the materials for the next two. He wrote in part, "I'm delighted. I think it is very faithful to the novel and does a wonderful job of translating the spirit of the novel into a visual medium." The creators of the comic also made an Illuminatus! discussion room on Citadel bulletin board systems.
A card game inspired by the trilogy, Illuminati was created by Steve Jackson Games. Using the Illuminatus! books as "spiritual guides but not as actual source material," it incorporated competing conspiracies of the Bavarian Illuminati and Discordians and others, though no characters or groups specific to the novels. A trading card game (Illuminati: New World Order) and role-playing game supplement (GURPS Illuminati) followed. The instruction booklets' bibliographies praise the novel and Wilson particularly, calling Illuminatus! in part "required reading for any conspiracy buff". Robert Shea provided a four-paragraph introduction to the rulebook for the Illuminati Expansion Set 1 (1983), in which he wrote, "Maybe the Illuminati are behind this game. They must be—they are, by definition, behind everything." Despite this initial involvement, Wilson later criticized some of these products for exploiting the Illuminatus! name without paying royalties (taking advantage of what he viewed as a legal loophole).
The Illuminatus Trilogy! is steeped with references to the 1960s popular music scene (at one point a list of 200 fictional bands performing at the Walpurgisnacht rock festival is reeled off (including a handful of actual bands of the 60s), and there are numerous references to the famous rock and roll song, "Rock Around the Clock"), and has influenced many bands and musicians. The anarchic British band The KLF was named after one of the secret societies from the trilogy. They released much of their early material under the name "The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu" (JAMs), also from the trilogy, and much of their work was Discordian in nature. They mirrored the fictional JAMs' gleeful political tactics of causing chaos and confusion by bringing a direct, humorous but nevertheless revolutionary approach to making records. The American band Machines of Loving Grace took the name of a sex act performed by one of the main characters during a Black Mass for the title of their song "Rite of Shiva" on their eponymous album. UK chillout maestro Mixmaster Morris also named his band The Irresistible Force after one that appears at the festival in the last part of the trilogy. Together with Coldcut he organised a huge Robert Anton Wilson Memorial Show at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London on 18 March 2007.
In general, The Illuminatus! Trilogy can be credited with popularizing the genre of conspiracy fiction, a field later mined by authors like Umberto Eco (Foucault's Pendulum) and Dan Brown (Angels and Demons, The Da Vinci Code), comic book writers like Alan Moore (V for Vendetta, Watchmen) and Grant Morrison (The Invisibles), and screenwriters like Chris Carter (The X-Files) and Damon Lindelof (Lost). In particular, the regular use of the Illuminati in popular culture as shadowy central puppet masters in this type of fiction can be traced back to their exposure via The Illuminatus! Trilogy.