The Age of Enlightenment in the late 17th century set the stage for the creation of the Order of the Illuminati. In 1776, German philosopher Johann Adam Weishaupt founded the secret society, which amassed more than 2,000 members across Europe within just two years. The Bavarian government suppressed the Illuminati two years after its creation because they viewed it as a threat to the monarchy. However, people believe it still exists today. Although people may associate the group with the all-seeing eye, the original symbol of the Illuminati is the Owl of Minerva. The owl is recognized as “an emblem of penetrating sight and intelligence,” and Minerva was the Roman goddess of wisdom.
1) What is the Illuminati?
In a historical sense, the term “Illuminati” refers to the Bavarian Illuminati, a secret society that operated for only a decade, from 1776 to 1785. This organization was founded by Adam Weishaupt, a German law professor who believed strongly in Enlightenment ideals, and his lluminatenorden sought to promote those ideals among elites. Weishaupt wanted to educate Illuminati members in reason, philanthropy, and other secular values so that they could influence political decisions when they came to power.
“It was pretty ambitious for six or nine guys, but they really wanted to take over the world,” says Chris Hodapp, the co-author of Conspiracy Theories and Secret Societies for Dummies with Alice VonKannon.
The Illuminati’s goals — and reputation — often exceeded their means, Hodapp notes. In its early days, the group was just a handful of people. And even at its largest, it only consisted of somewhere between 650 and 2,500 members. The group grew to that size by becoming a sort of sleeper cell within other groups — Illuminati members joined Freemason lodges to recruit members for their own competing secret society.
2) What did the Illuminati believe?
There were two sides to the historical Illuminati: their odd rituals and their ideals.
The Illuminati did plenty of unusual things. They used symbols (like the owl), adopted pseudonyms to avoid identification, and had complicated hierarchies like Novice, Minerval, and Illuminated Minerval that divided the ranks. In the beginning, Hodapp says, Illuminati members didn’t trust anyone over 30, because they were too set in their ways. Other reports of rituals are harder to confirm, but we know that members were very paranoid and used the spy-like protocol to keep one another’s identities secret.
But while they were following these bizarre rituals, they also promoted a worldview that reflected Enlightenment ideals like rational thought and self-rule. Anti-clerical and anti-royal, the Illuminati were closer to revolutionaries than world rulers, since they sought to infiltrate and upset powerful institutions like the monarchy.
3) Did the Illuminati manage to control the world?
Historians tend to think the Illuminati were only mildly successful — at best — in becoming influential. (Though, of course, there are also those who believe the Illuminati successfully took over the world — and still control it today. If an all-powerful group does dominate the world, we probably wouldn’t know about it. Δ.)
It’s also difficult to untangle the success of the Illuminati from that of the Freemasons, which they infiltrated and commingled with. It’s just as tough to tell what influence the Illuminati actually had, as opposed to the influence people, think they had.
We do know the Illuminati had some influential members — along with many dukes and other leaders who were powerful but are forgotten today, some sources think writer Johann Goethe was a member of the group (though other sources dispute the claim). In a way, Illuminati’s influence depends on what you believe about them. If you think their revolutionary ideals spread to other groups, like the French Revolution’s Jacobins, then they were successful. If you think those ideas would have prospered regardless, then they were mainly a historical curiosity.
4) Why did the real Illuminati disappear?
“They were wiped out,” Hodapp says. “People have tried to revive them over the years, but it’s a moneymaking scheme.”
In 1785, Duke of Bavaria Karl Theodor banned secret societies, including the Illuminati, and instituted serious punishments for anyone who joined them. Most of the group’s secrets were disclosed or published, and, if you believe most historians, the Illuminati disappeared.
From the moment of the disbanding, however, the myth expanded. As described in Conspiracy Theories in American History: An Encyclopedia, documents found in the homes of high-ranking Illuminati members like Xavier von Zwack confirmed some of the spookiest Illuminati theories, like their dreams of world domination and cultish behavior (even though those documents may exaggerate the truth about the group).
5) If the Illuminati vanished, how did their legend live on?
Almost immediately after the Illuminati was disbanded, conspiracy theories about the group sprang up.
The most famous conspiracy theories were authored by physicist John Robison in 1797, who accused the Illuminati of infiltrating the Freemasons, and Abbe Augustin Barruel, whose 1797 history of the Jacobins promoted the theory that secret societies, including the Illuminati, were behind the French Revolution. Historians tend to see these as the first in a long line of conspiracy theories (though, again, for those who believe the Illuminati run the world today, this is arguably proof of the group’s power).
Later on, some of the Founding Fathers managed to stoke interest in the Illuminati in the United States. In 1798, George Washington wrote a letter addressing the Illuminati threat (he believed it had been avoided, but his mentioning it helped bolster the myth). In the panic caused by the anti-Illuminati books and sermons, Thomas Jefferson was (baselessly) accused of being a member of the group.
Though these early Illuminati panics fizzled out, they gave the group a patina of legitimacy that, later on, would help make a centuries-long conspiracy seem more plausible.
6) Are the Illuminati related to the Freemasons?
Conspiracy theories have always been popular in the United States, but for centuries, the Illuminati were less feared than the Freemasons. The 1828 Anti-Masonic Party was based on an opposition to the Freemasons, and though the party died out, Freemasons remained a focal point for paranoia in America. Because the Illuminati recruited many members in Europe through Freemason lodges, the two groups are often confused for each other.
To some degree, Freemason paranoia grew out of the Freemasons’ influence in the United States. Many Founding Fathers were members, after all. And some key American symbols may have been derived from the Freemasons: There’s a strong argument that the floating eye on the dollar, the Eye of Providence above a pyramid, comes from Freemasonry. (There’s also an argument that it was meant as a Christian symbol; the only thing we know for certain is that it has nothing to do with the Bavarian Illuminati.)
That early Freemason paranoia can help us understand the conspiracy theories about the Illuminati today. “People will use a term like ‘Illuminati’ to define anything that they don’t like that might challenge their values,” says Joseph Uscinski, a political scientist at the University of Miami and co-author of American Conspiracy Theories with Joseph Parent.
7) Why do people still believe in the Illuminati today?
The Illuminati never completely disappeared from popular culture — it was always burbling in the background. But in the mid-1970s, the Illuminati made a marked comeback thanks to a literary trilogy that gave the group the simultaneously spooky and laughable image it holds today.
The Illuminatus Trilogy, by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson, depicted the Illuminati with ironic detachment. This trilogy became a countercultural touchstone, and its intermingling of real research — Weishaupt, the founder of the real Illuminati, is a character — with fantasy helped put the Illuminati back on the radar.
“It was a great example of the post-’60s ways of ironizing elite forms of power,” Mark Fenster says. “That ironic vision of conspiracy theory is extremely widely distributed. You can be both a serious conspiracy theorist and joke about it.”
From there, the Illuminati became a periodic staple of both popular culture — as in Dan Brown’s massively popular novel Angels and Demons — and various subcultures, where the group is often intermingled with Satanism, alien myths, and other ideas that would have been totally foreign to the real Bavarian Illuminati.
Uscinski clarifies that most Americans today don’t actually believe in the Illuminati. In a survey of conspiracy theories he conducted in 2012, he says zero people claimed that groups like Freemasons or Illuminati were controlling politics.