Why does the U.S. dollar bill have the image of a pyramid with an eye in the capstone? Someone told me that it has something to do with a shadow society that secretly rules the country. If they’re so secret why would they be so obvious about their insignia? I want the straight dope–that is, unless they’ve gotten to you too. –Jason K., Scarborough, Ontario

They haven’t. Ticks me off. Why should guys from the dailies get all the payola? As for the apparent paradox of a secret society advertising itself in one of the world’s most conspicuous places, some say that’s the beauty of it. The conspirators are geniuses, see? They know that the more they make themselves obvious, the more they’ll be invisible. Problem is, you’ve gotta be suspicious of a conspiracy theory that sounds like the kind of BS you’d dream up yourself.

As you know if you’ve read the fine print, what you see on the back of a dollar bill is the great seal of the U.S., established by Congress on June 20, 1782. The official interpretation is that the pyramid represents strength and durability. It’s incomplete because so is the work of building the nation. The eye in the triangle is the all-seeing eye of Providence.

What makes the story interesting is that the eye and pyramid have links to Freemasonry. The eye, for example, is said to be a symbol of the Great Architect of the Universe, i.e., God. The symbolic significance of the pyramid and the eye was well known to educated folk of the 18th century, and one may argue that the Masons and the designers of the seal were merely drawing on the same symbolic sources. But what if…one pauses pregnantly…there’s more to it?

Due to incomplete records, nobody knows exactly how many of the founding fathers were Masons. But there were quite a few, including George Washington, Ben Franklin, and possibly Thomas Jefferson. Franklin and Jefferson were on the committee assigned to design the great seal. This group produced a design calling for, among other things, an all-seeing eye. While the eye was cool, the design otherwise pretty much stank, and the job wound up getting dumped on the secretary of the Congress, Charles Thomson. Thomson enlisted the aid of Philadelphian William Barton. The two cooked up the scheme we have today, incorporating the all-seeing eye plus a pyramid, because everybody liked the idea of Egyptian symbolism.

It’s not known if Barton and Thomson were Masons, and judging from surviving correspondence there’s no indication a Masonic connection crossed anybody’s mind at the time. But it’s crossed lots of minds since. Theories range from Nuts to Really Nuts to Grounds for Immediate Commitment. Joseph Campbell, in The Power of Myth, proposed a wacky but basically genial interpretation that works in Solomon’s Seal and the Pythagorean tetrakis and Egyptian folklore. Upshot: the seal is a symbolic representation of democracy. Fine as far as it goes, but lacking the essential element of paranoia. For this we turn to the religious right, which sees the eye and pyramid as evidence of a Masonic plot (by George Washington!) to destroy Christianity.

And then, of course–you knew I was getting to this–there’s the Illuminati connection. As you know from our previous discussions of this subject, the Illuminati are the grand cabal behind everything, including, some think, weird stuff on money. The question is, who’s behind the Illuminati? Wise individuals, I venture to say. Indeed, we may characterize them as wise guys. I’m thinking of Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea, who in the mid-70s wrote the conspiracy satire Illuminatus!, which has become a cult classic. Wilson et al have been shoveling baloney about the Illuminati/ eye on the pyramid/world-domination conspiracy for more than 20 years, and some credit them with single-handedly keeping the thing alive. At the risk of belaboring the obvious, it’s a joke intended to separate hip folk (who get it) from right-wing losers (who don’t). So Jason, let me ask you. You think it’s real?


Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Illustration by Slug Signorino.

Cecil Adams

Cecil Adams is the world’s most intelligent human being. We know this because: (1) he knows everything, and (2) he is never wrong. For more, see The Straight Dope website and FAQ.