Follow TV Tropes


Literature / Illuminatus!

Go To

It's a dreadfully long monster of a book... and I certainly won't have time to read it, but I'm giving it a thorough skimming. The authors are utterly incompetent—no sense of style or structure at all. It starts out as a detective story, switches to science-fiction, then goes off into the supernatural, and is full of the most detailed information of dozens of ghastly boring subjects. And the time sequence is all out of order in a very pretentious imitation of Faulkner and Joyce. Worst yet, it has the most raunchy sex scenes, thrown in just to make it sell, I'm sure, and the authors—whom I've never heard of—have the supreme bad taste to introduce real political figures into this mishmash and pretend to be exposing a real conspiracy... If The Lord of the Rings is a fairy tale for adults, sophisticated readers will quickly recognize this monumental miscarriage as a fairy tale for paranoids.
Epicene Wildeblood, The Eye in the Pyramid

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, apparently 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. The third-person omniscient narrator finds these switches, as well as its original non-identity as a disembodied narrator, very troubling and disconcerting at first. It also jumps around in time, as do the minds of some of the characters, but by then it has settled down to a point where it is somewhat less evidently self-aware. It is thematically dense, covering topics like counterculture, numerology, anarchism, 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.

Shea and Wilson followed this up with the related Schrodinger's Cat trilogy, which develops the alternate-universes model of quantum physics, using permutations on the same characters and settings.

Wilson went on, solo, to write the Historical Illuminatus trilogy, a tangential work called The Illuminatus Papers and the standalone novel Masks of the Illuminati, seemingly conventional novels providing some of the historical context behind the main trilogy, that further develop and explore the ideas of Illuminatus!. These also drop the same sort of delayed-action mindfucks and logic bombs on the reader, although far more subtly. Wilson also published a large number of non-fiction works expanding on the novel's themes such as the Cosmic Trigger trilogy. Many of these later works were embraced by the New Age community.

Shea wrote the Shike! series of historical romances set in Asia and Japan at the time of Kublai Khan, and the All Things are Light series set at the time of the Crusades. These are about 80% conventional historical thriller, and 20% mysticism, Sufi, and Zen Buddhism.

Both authors died leaving their series unfinished, although unpublished illuminatus-related work is available on both their websites.

Also known for inspiring early-90s electronic dance musicians, The KLF, AKA The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu. Both names are references to the books.


  • Agent Peacock: A resident of Fernando Poo who kills several soldiers with a broadsword before being riddled with bullets.
  • The All-Concealing "I": Much of the first-person narration is revealed at the end to be from the perspective of a third-person omniscient narrator in a fiction novel. However, there is a strong argument to be made for the existence of multiple first-person narrators; including, at one point, a squirrel.
  • American Eagle: The book ends on a scene where an all-American hunter is climbing a mountain somewhere in the Rockies on a mission that will make him a god among hunters and utterly reviled by liberals, commies, ecologists, hippies and limp-wristed pinkos. Specifically, his mission is to kill the last known American Eagle. As he lowers his rifle and screams "I did it! I killed the last eagle!" the strands of the story come together as a massive earthquake begins under his feet. The San Andreas Fault has just broken up and at this point, a combination of earthquakes and tsunamis destroy the Pacific seaboard of the USA. The implication is clear: America is so bound up with its symbolic eagles that killing the last one, rendering the species extinct, also destroys the USA. The ideal of America dies with the last eagle.
  • Anachronic Order: The story, if you really wanna call it that, jumps back and forth between plot threads as well as points in time in a seemingly random fashion, with the narrator even recounting events that haven't happened yet. Also happens with Joe Malick In-Universe.
  • Ancient Conspiracy: Subverted. While several conspiracies claim to be ancient, none of them are more than 250 years old, and the only organization that really is as old as it claims is more of an Ancient Tradition than a conspiracy.
  • Apocalypse Cult: The Illuminati Prime (the five most powerful people in the world) are actively seeking to Immanetize the Eschaton — ie, bring about the apocalypse — to make themselves immortal and provide a massive blood sacrifice to their Elder Brothers and Sisters, the Lloigr of Cthulu.
  • Apple of Discord: Turns out it works on Nazi zombies.
  • Artistic License – Biology: Howard and his friends are alternatively referred to as dolphins and porpoises. They are, in fact, biologically distinct species.
  • As Himself: Timothy Leary shows up a few times, and he and Wilson were friends in real life.
  • The Atoner: Gruad the Greyface, a.k.a. the Dealy Lama, is either this or a Hero with Bad Publicity, depending on who you ask. Of course, if you ask him, he'll probably tell you that he's actually a Villain with Good Publicity — we ultimately learn that he engineered his own bad publicity as part of being The Atoner.
  • Bad Date: The literature critic Epicine Wildblood had placed a personals ad for "men interested in Greek culture" but got an answer from the unnamed, heterosexual Vice President of the US who wanted to talk about how great he thinks the Greek military Junta is.
  • Beethoven Was an Alien Spy
    • The bank robber John Dillinger was actually identical Zen master quintuplets and one of the JFK assassins.
    • George Washington may have been secretly replaced by Adam Weishaupt, "founder" of the Bavarian Illuminati.
    • Cecil Rhodes coined the expression "Kick out the jams!", which later became the basis for the title of the MC5's classic punk song.
    • The Beatles are the only band in the history of rock and roll to not be controlled by Satan.
    • Post-resurrection Jesus was a Physical God from ancient Greece, who's also Simon Magus and the Reverend Billy Graham.
    • The true identity of Stella/Mavis/Mao/Eris is strongly implied to have been Marilyn Monroe.
  • Betty and Veronica: Arguably Stella and Mavis, for George. Subverted in that they turn out to be the same person (or rather, Goddess).
  • Black-and-White Insanity: One of the main drives behind the Illuminati. Especially evident during the scene where Gruad the Greyface is introduced.
  • Brown Note: fnord. It is hinted that the actual fnord word is not fnord, but some word people actually fnording use, with the same effect.
  • Captain Nemo Copy: Hagbard Celine, the genius anarchist who opposes The Illuminati with his golden submarine, the Leif Ericson.
  • Conspiracy Kitchen Sink: To the extent that every other conspiracy theory/mindfuck is laughable once you grasp Illuminatus! Seriously. This is the book whose appendices included the line "We have mentioned only one real conspiracy; this book is part of it" [paraphrased]. There's a reason why this trilogy is often promoted with the tagline, "A fairy tale for paranoids."
  • Cosmopolitan Council: Since it's Discordians, the funny costumes were probably just for laughs. Probably.
  • Counter-Earth: The leaders of the Illuminati may have originated on a counter-Earth named Vulcan and come to Earth on flying saucers from Mars via Saturn.
  • Creepy Uncle: the man who made Atlanta Hope the woman she became and who indirectly inspired Telemachus Sneezed.
  • Cynical Mentor: The Dealy Lama (AKA Gruad the Greyface), who lives beneath Dealy Plaza.
  • Deconstructive Parody: Of conspiracy theories, 1960s hippie culture, and even the book itself. See Self-Deprecation.
  • Depraved Bisexual: Harry Coin claims to be willing to have sex with anything that moves and a few things that don't. His first appearance in the story involves him trying to Prison Rape George Dorn, and threatening to rape his corpse if he didn't submit willingly. Later on he does a Heel–Face Turn and joins the good guys, and explains that the weird sex acts cause him to see pure white light, implying that he achieved a partial illumination through them!
  • Depraved Dwarf: Markov Chaney, AKA The Midget, a bitter genius who takes his frustration on humanity by hiding in office coffee pots and creating fake red tape documents and awkwardly demanding business signs.
  • Did You Just Romance Cthulhu?: Apparently the Necronomicon contains lots of pentagons, with images of people having sex with shoggoths and other Lovecraftian beings.
    • Fission Chips hears a Shoggoth attempting to proposition him- at least according to him.
  • Door Stopper: The books are reasonably slim, individually, but the trilogy pushes 800 pages as an Omnibus, which is the most common format it's found in nowadays.
  • Double Reverse Quadruple Agent: Tobias Knight goes this trope one better, being described as the only quintuple agent in the history of espionage.
  • Eldritch Abomination: In addition to the Lloigor, there's also the Leviathan, a mountain-sized single-celled life form that's lived in the oceans since the Precambrian Era.
  • Executive Meddling: Shea and Wilson had to cut out around 500 pages from the finished manuscript in order for publishers to even give it a chance. Considering how long the trilogy is in its current form, this is arguably Justified.
  • Eye of Providence: The eye-in-the-pyramid is an omnipresent symbol of the world-spanning conspiracy (of which The Illuminati are just a small branch) that the heroes are fighting. Eventually, the latter even discover the (in-story) origin/inspiration of said symbol: a giant sea monster named Leviathan, slumbering in the sunken ruins of Atlantis, shaped like a pyramid with a giant glowing sphere inside it that looks like an eyenote .
  • Fakeout Escape: The explanation provided for Dillinger's escapes from prison.
  • Fun with Acronyms: Two examples are an ultra-right-wing group called the Knights of Christianity United in Faith, and a computer named the First Universal Cybernetic-Kinetic Ultramicro-Programmer. There's also two right-wing organizations whose acronyms are WHORE and TWAT. One of the many groups holds its meetings on Lake Shore Drive "because of the acrostic significance".
  • Gambit Pileup: The strategies of several different competing secret societies collide and bounce off each other, introducing Chaos into Order.
  • Genre Roulette: Comedy, horror, sci-fi, fantasy, police procedural, political thriller, pornography...
  • The Government: It's worth noting that Illuminatus was originally written before the Watergate scandal, although it was revised somewhat afterward. It was also revised after the publication of Gravity's Rainbow in order to insert Shout Outs to Pynchon's novel. note .
  • Hippie Van: Subverted and Lampshaded when Hagbard Celine criticizes Simon Moon's VW, pointing out that a bunch of hippies in a VW Microbus will be stopped and searched EVERY time, while a white guy in a suit driving a BMW will never be stopped by the police. This is Hagbard's method of choice for drug transportation, and Simon admits he never dares have anything on him when he's in his VW.
  • Historical Domain Character: William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg appear in a scene set at the 1968 Chicago Democratic Party convention.
    • There's also Timothy Leary, Adam Weishaupt, John Dillinger, Adolf Hitler, George Washington, Dutch Schultz...
  • Ironic Echo Cut: The paragraphs introducing the US president, the Soviet premier, and the Chinese premier are word-for-word identical, and all end by comparing the one to the other two.
  • Just Like Robin Hood:
    • John Dillinger via Historical Hero Upgrade.
    • Also, to a certain degree, Hagbard Celine. Somewhat justified in that Hagbard seems at least to a certain degree to be a parody of Ayn Rand's character Ragnar Danneskjold.
  • Lawyer-Friendly Cameo: The novel Telemachus Sneezed, a parody of Atlas Shrugged, which asks the question "What is John Guilt?" Atlas Shrugged is mentioned several times itself, however. Telemachus Sneezed might be a thought experiment on what would have been the result if Ayn Rand had focused her interest in Ancient Greek philosophy on Heraclitus instead of Parmenides and Aristotle. It's an interesting fact however that Atlas Shrugged is anti-government, while Telemachus Sneezed is depicted as definitely pro-strong-government to the point of being openly fascist.
  • Leaning on the Fourth Wall: The book contains a scathing review of the fictional Telemachus Sneezed. All of the criticisms are aspects of the Illuminatus! Trilogy itself.
  • Long List: The complete listing of the names of the rock bands that are set to play at the climactic Walpurgisnacht concert goes on for quite a while. One of them is Nirvana.
    • Considering the members of that band had only just been born when the books were written, it's more likely Nirvana refers to the British psychedelic band of the same name, or the name may have been made up on the spot.
    • Legend has it that every single one of the bands listed, solely barring the ones that are actually portrayed on stage, has actually existed; the fact that the list contains a fairly large number of well-known (for some value of "well-known") bands such as "H.P. Lovecraft" and "Steppenwolf" makes the claim plausible.
  • Lotsa People Try to Dun It: Five assassins were actually gunning for JFK, although only one succeeded, and one other (Oswald) got caught.
  • Mega-Microbes: Leviathan, the "other half of creation" that sustains itself by having grown, whilst remining a single-celled organism: he is the brother of Mother Nature, who grows by having divided into all the millions of discrete species on Earth. After millenia and aeons, Leviathan is large.
  • Metafiction
  • Milkman Conspiracy: One Illuminati front works through controlling Discordians and anarchists, while another is led by the four members of a European teen pop group called "The American Medical Association".
  • Mind Screw: At just about every possible opportunity. One of the conspiracies involved even has a plan called "Operation Mindfuck," a reference to a real life Discordian project with the same name, though the novel's equivalent has greater ambition (or possibly just greater resources).
  • Mole in Charge: Hagbard is one of the leaders of just about every conspiracy out there, even though they're all opposing each other.
  • Most Writers Are Writers: Several of the characters work for magazines and newspapers, with both outlets playing major roles throughout the trilogy. Shea and Wilson were both working as associate editors for Playboy at the time.
  • Multilayer Façade: Every ancient secret is actually a cover-up for some other ancient secret. And yes, that same principle applies to pretty much every level, thus creating an infinite loop of The Reveal.
  • Multiple-Choice Past: There are a lot of different stories told about Gruad the Greyface, which make him out to be anything from the original Satan or heroic Prometheus or anything in between. Graud claims he started most of the rumors himself and was just sort of in the right place at the appropriate time, but who knows.
  • Mystical City Planning: It's implied that The Pentagon is built that way because of the occult significance of the shape, and that it's housing some sort of Eldritch Abomination.
  • Never Going Back to Prison: Dillinger's attitude towards returning to prison.
  • The New Rock & Roll: Actually, just rock and roll.
  • No Fourth Wall: The main characters eventually learn that they are characters in the book itself, being narrated by an all-powerful, overseeing AI. Of course, the book is so perspective-jumping and Mind Screw-filled that what the "truth" is is intentionally left up to the reader. In an earlier example, twice in the book the associate editor of "Confrontation" (the magazine that several of the characters are associated with) calls up his book reviewer to ask about the progress of his latest review. The books described by the book reviewer are obviously the Illuminatus! trilogy itself (for added humor, the book reviewer has nothing but contempt for the trilogy's length, shifting perspective, complicated plot, or frequent use of sex, drugs, and obscene language).
  • Number Obsession: Multiple characters are obsessed with the numbers 5, 17, and 23.
  • Order Versus Chaos: As far as the Discordians are concerned, Order and Disorder are only two aspects of Chaos, which contains everything. They are on the side of Disorder because Order has overwhelmed the society, but they don't plan on destroying Order entirely (or believe that they could).
  • Out-Gambitted: You know the Bavarian Illuminati? Secret organization out to rule the world from behind the scenes? Well, it turns out that they're the ones who are being manipulated. In fact, every single one of the dozens of the dozens of plans and predictions and all the quick adjustments played by the different characters and factions in the book can be interpreted as Out-Gambitted from one point of view or another.
  • The Parody: One of the characters is a book reviewer who trashes a novel that sounds very much like the trilogy itself.
  • Pop Culture Symbology: Being a postmodern novel, it contains lots of this. For instance, Bugs Bunny is revealed to be a symbol of Lovecraft's shoggoths, and "You Wascal Wabbit" was the password of Illuminati agents in Hollywood.
  • Postmodernism: While the book is frequently categorized as Postmodern literature, Postmodernism is deconstructed and parodied throughout. Whether that qualifies as Take That! or Self-Deprecation depends on how much of the authors' Mind Screw you feel applies; however, Robert Anton Wilson has published more direct deconstructions of Postmodernism (e.g. Maybe Logic), so it's more likely to be the former than the latter. (Then again, the authors were apparently pretty big fans of Thomas Pynchon and James Joyce, so take that how you will).
  • Prison Rape: Harry Coin on George Dorn. Or not.
  • Public Secret Message: A secret society places personal ads reading "In thanks to St. Jude for favors answered - A.W." as a code to their other members.
  • Punny Name: too many to count, including Fission Chips, Markov Chaney, Saul Goodman and the Saure siblings (named after the German word for "Acid", which is also the S in LSD)
  • The Rashomon: Just when, where, why, and how the Illuminati came to be varies wildly depending on who's telling the story. Most agree it started on Atlantis, but the rest is up to debate.
  • Real Life Writes the Plot: Wilson and Shea's initial inspiration for the novel was the wide range of Conspiracy Theorist nutbars of all persuasions whose letters they read as editors for Playboy.
  • Revealing Cover Up: Two police detectives get sucked into the story when a left-wing magazine's office is bombed, and they find a collection of notes about the Illuminati in the wreckage. It turns out the magazine's editor set the bomb, specifically to get one of the detectives on the case.
  • Sapient Cetaceans: Dolphins aid the Discordians in their underwater expeditions.
  • Scare Campaign: One of the Illuminati's favorite ways of keeping the masses in line.
  • Screw Learning, I Have Phlebotinum!: The AUM drug, sort of. It is supposed to just increase intelligence, openness and creativity, but a judge who takes it suddenly also has a profound understanding of higher mathematics, communication theory, and set theory.
    • To be fair, he does read books on these topics that he picks up right after taking the drug. The idea seems to be that the drug increases mental openness, creative thinking, and absorption of new information to superhuman levels. Essentially, after taking the drug, his mind can piece together all this information from just skimming through the books where other minds would take months or even years studying the respective concepts. The trope kind of still applies though.
  • Sealed Evil in a Can: Yog-Sothoth is imprisoned inside The Pentagon, where he's kept dormant by sacrificing unto him the souls of all the Americans who die in car accidents every year. It gets released near the end.
  • Self-Deprecation: At one point there's a scathing "review" of a novel which is pretty transparently Illuminatus! itself. See the page quote.
  • Sewer Gator: There is a passing mention of the Illuminati going to some effort to suppress the Sewer Gators under Manhattan, as left unchecked, they might promote more courage among the ignorant masses than the Illuminati would like.
  • Shout-Out: To Principia Discordia in particular (to the point where it could almost be considered a companion work), as well as H. P. Lovecraft, Ayn Rand, Conan the Barbarian, The Lord of the Rings, and numerous others. When the Illuminati come for him, Drake quotes Bride of Frankenstein: "We belong dead."
  • Stock Ness Monster: It says something about the nature of this book that a brief encounter with Nessie is one of the least weird things to happen in it.
  • Take That!:
    • One example from the appendix (although it is hardly the only one), talking about the difference between property(1), which only exists due to the threat of force, and property(2), mutually agreed upon by all members of society:
    The error of most alleged libertarians — especially the followers(!) of the egregious Ayn Rand — is to assume that all property(1) is property(2). The distinction can be made by any IQ above 70 and is absurdly simple. The test is to ask, of any title of ownership you are asked to accept or which you ask others to accept, ‘Would this be honored in a free society of rationalists, or does it require the armed might of a State to force people to honor it?’ If it be the former, it is property(2) and represents liberty; if it be the latter, it is property(1) and represents theft.
    • An in-universe example with Howard the Porpoise's song about sharks:
    May plagues and rains and typhoons beat them.
    May Great Cthulhu rise and eat them!
    • One to the book reviewers and the publishing industry in general:
    We don't expect you to actually read the books, just so long as you can be entertaining about them.
  • The '70s: Let's just say that the Illuminatus! trilogy is very much of its time, although this isn't necessarily a bad thing.
  • Those Wacky Nazis: Namely, Ghostapo: (the Nazis that attack the Ingolstadt Rock Festival are a SS division who collectively committed suicide and was then revived as Zombies by the Illuminati).
  • Treacherous Advisor: Hagbard , to both the Discordians and the Illuminati. However, he's not really aiming to betray anyone, just teach and illuminate them towards independent, non-destructive existence. In the case of the Illuminati he eventually gives up due to their refusal to even try to communicate peacefully with the world.
  • Trickster Mentor: Hagbard Celine goes out of his way to make sure his 'disciples' know he's a massive liar who can't be completely trusted. He hopes they'll apply that lesson to other mentors as well. He has named his organization "The Legion of Dynamic Discord" primarily so that he can eventually tell the members that the initials "LDD" really stands for "Little Deluded Dupes." He is also fond of a painting of Moses on Mount Sinai carrying stone tablets that read "Think for yourself, schmuck!"
  • Unified Naming System: The plethora of acronymous —and mutually acrimonious.- competing groups. This is not done entirely seriously —witness KCUF— Knights of Christ United in Faith. Or WHORE —White Heroes Opposing Red Extremism.
  • Unreliable Expositor: As befits a Conspiracy Kitchen Sink, taken up to eleven.
  • Unreliable Narrator: In the beginning, the narrator doesn't know who, what, or when he is as he bounces back in forth in the story through different viewpoint characters, and eventually realizes he's a third-person omniscient narrator in a fiction novel.
  • Waking Up Elsewhere: * In the Historical Illuminatus series novel The Widow's Son, lead character Sigismundo Celine is consigned to the Bastille. He ends up under a heavy security regimen after escaping and being recaptured, effectively confined to his cell where he has ample opportunity to memorise all the details of his room. One day he wakes up after a deeper sleep than normal to realise he is on the ceiling and looking down at his room - the floor has become his new ceiling. Gravity has seemingly reversed itself in the night. But he looks carefully and sees small inconsistencies in placement and arrangement of furniture. He also realises the window has suddenly been boarded over. He deduces he has been drugged and moved to an elaborate hoax set-up, for reasons as yet unclear.
  • Who Shot JFK?: Turns out the Law of Fives applies here, too.
  • World of Mysteries: The main storyline does get resolved, but there are lots of side plotlines which are either completely unresolved or provide contradictory answers regarding "who's behind what" and "who works for whom" (such as Mama Sutra's story about the Cult of the Yellow Sign).
  • Wrong Genre Savvy: 00005, a James Bond expy who finds himself in way over his head trying to infiltrate the Starry Wisdom Church. Still, when at Fernando Poo, he's more aware of the truth behind the event than all the major intelligence agencies.


Alternative Title(s): The Illuminatus Trilogy