The Illuminati (plural of Latin illuminatus, "enlightened") is a name given to several groups, both real and fictitious. Historically, the name refers to the Bavarian Illuminati, an Enlightenment-era secret society founded on May 1, 1776. The society's goals were to oppose superstition, obscurantism, religious influence over public life and abuses of state power. "The order of the day," they wrote in their general statutes, "is to put an end to the machinations of the purveyors of injustice, to control them without dominating them." The Illuminati—along with Freemasonry and other secret societies—were outlawed through Edict, by the Bavarian ruler, Charles Theodore, with the encouragement of the Roman Catholic Church, in 1784, 1785, 1787 and 1790. In the several years following, the group was vilified by conservative and religious critics who claimed that they continued underground and were responsible for the French Revolution.
In subsequent use, "Illuminati" refers to various organisations which claim or are purported to have links to the original Bavarian Illuminati or similar secret societies, though these links are unsubstantiated. They are often alleged to conspire to control world affairs, by masterminding events and planting agents in government and corporations, in order to gain political power and influence and to establish a New World Order. Central to some of the most widely known and elaborate conspiracy theories, the Illuminati have been depicted as lurking in the shadows and pulling the strings and levers of power in dozens of novels, movies, television shows, comics, video games and music videos.
Adam Weishaupt (1748-1830) was a professor of Canon Law and Practical philosophy at the University of Ingolstadt. He was the only non-clerical professor at an institution run by Jesuits, whose order had been dissolved in 1773. The Jesuits of Ingolstadt, however, still retained the purse strings and some power at the University, which they continued to regard as their own. Constant attempts were made to frustrate and discredit non-clerical staff, especially when course material contained anything they regarded as liberal or Protestant. Weishaupt became deeply anti-clerical, resolving to spread the ideals of the Enlightenment (Aufklärung) through some sort of secret society of like-minded individuals.
Finding Freemasonry to be expensive, and not open to his ideas, he founded his own society which was to have a gradal system based on Freemasonry, but his own agenda. His original name for the new order was Bund der Perfektibilisten, or Covenant of Perfectibility, but quickly changed it because it sounded too strange. On 1 May 1776 Weishaupt and four students formed the Illuminatenorden, or Order of Illuminati, taking the Owl of Minerva as their symbol. The members were to use aliases within the society. Weishaupt became Spartacus. Law students Massenhausen, Bauhof, Merz and Sutor became respectively Ajax, Agathon, Tiberius and Erasmus Roterodamus. Weishaupt later expelled Sutor for indolence.
Massenhausen was initially the most active in expanding the society. Significantly, while studying in Munich shortly after the formation of the order, he recruited Xavier von Zwack, a former pupil of Weishaupt at the beginning of a significant administrative career. (At the time, he was in charge of the Bavarian National Lottery). Massenhausen's enthusiasm soon became a liability in the eyes of Weishaupt, often attempting to recruit unsuitable candidates. Later, his erratic love-life made him neglectful, and as Weishaupt passed control of the Munich group to Zwack, it became clear that Massenhausen had misappropriated subscriptions and intercepted correspondence between Weishaupt and Zwack. In 1778, Massenhausen graduated and took a post outside Bavaria, taking no further interest in the order. At this time, the order had a nominal membership of twelve.
With the departure of Massenhausen, Zwack immediately applied himself to recruiting more mature and important recruits. Most prized by Weishaupt was Hertel, a childhood friend and a canon of the Munich Frauenkirche. By the end of summer 1778 the order had 27 members (still counting Massenhausen) in 5 commands; Munich (Athens), Ingolstadt (Eleusis), Ravensberg (Sparta), Freysingen (Thebes), and Eichstaedt (Erzurum).
During this early period, the order had three grades of Novice, Minerval, and Illuminated Minerval, of which only the Minerval grade involved a complicated ceremony. In this the candidate was given secret signs and a password. A system of mutual espionage kept Weishaupt informed of the activities and character of all his members, his favourites becoming members of the ruling council, or Areopagus. Some novices were permitted to recruit, becoming Insinuants. Christians of good character were expected, with Jews and Pagans specifically excluded, along with women, monks, and members of other secret societies. Favoured candidates were rich, docile, willing to learn, and aged 18-30.
Having, with difficulty, dissuaded some of his members from joining the Freemasons, Weishaupt decided to join the older order to acquire material to expand his own ritual. He was admitted to lodge "Prudence" of the Rite of Strict Observance early in February 1777. His progress through the three degrees of "blue lodge" masonry taught him nothing of the higher degrees he sought to exploit, but in the following year a priest called Abbé Marotti informed Zwack that these inner secrets rested on knowledge of the older religion and the primitive church. Zwack persuaded Weishaupt that their own order should enter into friendly relations with Freemasonry, and obtain the dispensation to set up their own lodge. At this stage (December 1778), the addition of the first three degrees of Freemasonry was seen as a secondary project.
With little difficulty, a warrant was obtained from the Grand Lodge of Prussia called the Royal York for Friendship, and the new lodge was called Theodore of the Good Council, with the intention of flattering Charles Theodore, Elector of Bavaria. It was founded in Munich on 21 March 1779, and quickly packed with Illuminati. The first master, a man called Radl, was persuaded to return home to Baden, and by July Weishaupt's order ran the lodge.
The next step involved independence from their Grand Lodge. By establishing masonic relations with the Union lodge in Frankfurt, affiliated to the Premier Grand Lodge of England, lodge Theodore became independently recognised, and able to declare its independence. As a new mother lodge, it could now spawn lodges of its own. The recruiting drive amongst the Frankfurt masons also obtained the allegiance of Adolph Freiherr Knigge.
Knigge was recruited late in 1780 at a convention of the Rite of Strict Observance by Costanzo Marchese di Costanzo, an infantry captain in the Bavarian army and a fellow Freemason. Knigge, still in his twenties, had already reached the highest initiatory grades of his order, and had arrived with his own grand plans for its reform. Disappointed that his scheme found no support, Knigge was immediately intrigued when Costanzo informed him that the order that he sought to create already existed. Knigge and three of his friends expressed a strong interest in learning more of this order, and Costanzo showed them material relating to the Minerval grade. The teaching material for the grade was "liberal" literature which was banned in Bavaria, but common knowledge in the Protestant German states. Knigge's three companions became disillusioned and had no more to do with Costanza, but Knigge's persistence was rewarded in November 1780 by a letter from Weishaupt. Knigge's connections, both within and outside of Freemasonry, made him an ideal recruit. Knigge, for his own part, was flattered by the attention, and drawn towards the order's stated aims of education and the protection of mankind from despotism. Weishaupt managed to acknowledge, and pledge to support, Knigge's interest in alchemy and the "higher sciences". Knigge replied to Weishaupt outlining his plans for the reform of Freemasonry as the Strict Observance began to question its own origins.
Weishaupt set Knigge the task of recruiting before he could be admitted to the higher grades of the order. Knigge accepted, on the condition that he was allowed to choose his own recruiting grounds. Many other masons found Knigge's description of the new masonic order attractive, and were enrolled in the Minerval grade of the Illuminati. Knigge appeared at this time to believe in the "Most Serene Superiors" which Weishaupt claimed to serve. His inability to articulate anything about the higher degrees of the order became increasingly embarrassing, but in delaying any help, Weishaupt gave him an extra task. Provided with material by Weishaupt, Knigge now produced pamphlets outlining the activities of the outlawed Jesuits, purporting to show how they continued to thrive and recruit, especially in Bavaria. Meanwhile, Knigge's inability to give his recruits any satisfactory response to questions regarding the higher grades was making his position untenable, and he wrote to Weishaupt to this effect. In January 1781, faced with the prospect of losing Knigge and his masonic recruits, Weishaupt finally confessed that his superiors and the supposed antiquity of the order were fictions, and the higher degrees had yet to be written.
If Knigge had expected to learn the promised deep secrets of Freemasonry in the higher degrees of the Illuminati, he was surprisingly calm about Weishaupt's revelation. Weishaupt promised Knigge a free hand in the creation of the higher degrees, and also promised to send him his own notes. For his own part, Knigge welcomed the opportunity to use the order as a vehicle for his own ideas. His new approach would, he claimed, make the Illuminati more attractive to prospective members in the Protestant kingdoms of Germany. In November of 1781 the Areopagus advanced Knigge 50 florins to travel to Bavaria, which he did via Swabia and Franconia, meeting and enjoying the hospitality of other Illuminati on his journey.
The order had now developed profound internal divisions. The Eichstaedt command had formed an autonomous province in July 1780, and a rift was growing between Weishaupt and the Areopagus, who found him stubborn, dictatorial, and inconsistent. Knigge fitted readily into the role of peacemaker.
In discussions with the Areopagus and Weishaupt, Knigge identified two areas which were problematic. Weishaupt's emphasis on the recruitment of university students meant that senior positions in the order often had to be filled by young men with little practical experience. Secondly, the anti-Jesuit ethos of the order at its inception had become a general anti-religious sentiment, which Knigge knew would be a problem in recruiting the senior Freemasons that the order now sought to attract. Knigge felt keenly the stifling grip of conservative Catholicism in Bavaria, and understood the anti-religious feelings that this produced in the liberal Illuminati, but he also saw the negative impression these same feelings would engender in Protestant states, inhibiting the spread of the order in greater Germany. Both the Areopagus and Weishaupt felt powerless to do anything less than give Knigge a free hand. He had the contacts within and outside of Freemasonry that they needed, and he had the skill as a ritualist to build their projected gradal structure, where they had ground to a halt at Illuminatus Minor, with only the Minerval grade below and the merest sketches of higher grades. The only restrictions imposed were the need to discuss the inner secrets of the highest grades, and the necessity of submitting his new grades for approval.
Meanwhile, the scheme to propagate Illuminatism as a legitimate branch of Freemasonry had stalled. While Lodge Theodore was now in their control, a chapter of "Elect Masters" attached to it only had one member from the order, and still had a constitutional superiority to the craft lodge controlled by the Illuminati. The chapter would be difficult to persuade to submit to the Areopagus, and formed a very real barrier to Lodge Theodore becoming the first mother-lodge of a new Illuminated Freemasonry. An treaty of alliance was signed between the order and the chapter, and by the end of January 1781 four daughter lodges had been created, but independence was not in the chapter's agenda.
Costanza wrote to the Royal York pointing out the discrepancy between the fees dispatched to their new Grand Lodge and the service they had received in return. The Royal York, unwilling to lose the revenue, offered to confer the "higher" secrets of Freemasonry on a representative that their Munich brethren would dispatch to Berlin. Costanza accordingly set off for Prussia on 4 April 1780, with instructions to negotiate a reduction in Theodore's fees while he was there. On the way, he managed to have an argument with a Frenchman on the subject of a lady with whom they were sharing a carriage. The Frenchman sent a message ahead to the king, some time before they reached Berlin, denouncing Costanza as a spy. He was only freed from prison with the help of the Grand Master of Royal York, and was expelled from Prussia having accomplished nothing.
Knigge's initial plan to obtain a constitution from London would, they realised, have been seen through by the chapter. Until such time as they could take over other masonic lodges that their chapter could not control, they were for the moment content to rewrite the three degrees for the lodges which they administered.
On 20 January 1782 Knigge tabulated his new system of grades for the order. These were arranged in three classes:
- Class I - The nursery, consisting of the Noviciate, the Minerval, and Illuminatus minor.
- Class II - The Masonic grades. The three "blue lodge" grades of Apprentice, Companion, and Master were separated from the higher "Scottish" grades of Scottish Novice and Scottish Knight.
- Class III - The Mysteries. The lesser mysteries were the grades of Priest and Prince, followed by the greater mysteries in the grades of Mage and King. It is unlikely that the rituals for the greater mysteries were ever written.
Meanwhile, German Freemasonry was undergoing a crisis, especially in the higher degrees, with the death of Karl Gotthelf von Hund in 1776 and the subsequent decline of his Rite of Strict Observance. In 1782, the Convent of Wilhelmsbad effectively ended Strict Observance by declaring that von Hund's Unknown Superiors did not exist, and the order had no connection with the Knights Templar. This decision was far from unanimous, and the convent fragmented, rather than united, the German lodges. Knigge and Franz Dietrich von Ditfurth, attending on behalf of the Illuminati, attracted many recruits, including Johann Christoph Bode, a leading member of Strict Observance, but failed in their objective of winning over all of von Hund's former lodges.
Weishaupt now attempted to retroactively edit Knigge's work, and the two men fell out. Knigge left the order in 1783, depriving Weishaupt of his best theoretician, recruiter, and apologist.
In 1777, Karl Theodor became ruler of Bavaria. He was a proponent of Enlightened Despotism and his government banned all secret societies including the Illuminati. Internal rupture and panic over succession preceded the society's downfall. A government edict dated March 2, 1785 "seems to have been deathblow to the Illuminati in Bavaria". Weishaupt had fled and documents and internal correspondence, seized in 1786 and 1787, were subsequently published by the government in 1787. Von Zwack's home was searched and much of the group's literature was disclosed.
Many influential intellectuals and progressive politicians counted themselves as members, including Ferdinand of Brunswick and the diplomat Xavier von Zwack, who was the Order's second-in-command. It attracted literary men such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Johann Gottfried Herder and the reigning dukes of Gotha and Weimar.
Barruel and Robison
Between 1797 and 1798, Augustin Barruel's Memoirs Illustrating the History of Jacobinism and John Robison's Proofs of a Conspiracy publicised the theory that the Illuminati had survived and represented an ongoing international conspiracy. This included the claim that it was behind the French Revolution. Both books proved to be very popular, spurring reprints and paraphrases by others. A prime example of this is Proofs of the Real Existence, and Dangerous Tendency, Of Illuminism by Reverend Seth Payson, published in 1802. Some of the response to this was critical, for example Jean-Joseph Mounier's On the Influence Attributed to Philosophers, Free-Masons, and to the Illuminati on the Revolution of France.
The works of Robison and Barruel made their way to the United States, and across New England, Reverend Jedidiah Morse and others gave sermons against the Illuminati. Their sermons were printed and the matter was followed in newspapers. Concern died down in the first decade of the 1800s, although it revived from time to time in the Anti-Masonic movement of the 1820s and 30s.
Several recent and present-day fraternal organisations claim to be descended from the original Bavarian Illuminati and openly use the name "Illuminati". Some of these groups use a variation on the name "The Illuminati Order" in the name of their own organisations, while others, such as the Ordo Templi Orientis, have "Illuminati" as a level within their organisation's hierarchy. However, there is no evidence that these present-day groups have amassed significant political power or influence, and rather than trying to remain secret, they promote unsubstantiated links to the Bavarian Illuminati as a means of attracting membership.
Modern conspiracy theory
The Illuminati did not long survive their suppression in Bavaria, and their further mischief and plottings in the work of Barruel and Robison must be considered as the invention of the writers. However, writers such as Mark Dice, David Icke, Texe Marrs, Jüri Lina and Morgan Gricar have argued that the Bavarian Illuminati have survived, possibly to this day.
Many modern conspiracy theories propose that world events are being controlled and manipulated by a secret society calling itself the Illuminati. Conspiracy theorists have claimed that many notable people were or are members of the Illuminati. Presidents of the United States are a common target for such claims.
Other theorists contend that a variety of historical events were orchestrated by the Illuminati, from the Battle of Waterloo, the French Revolution and President John F. Kennedy's assassination to an alleged communist plot to hasten the New World Order by infiltrating the Hollywood film industry.
The Illuminati, or fictitious modern groups called the Illuminati, play a central role in the plots of novels, for example The Illuminatus! Trilogy by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson. They also make an appearance in Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco and Angels and Demons by Dan Brown. A mixture of historical fact and established conspiracy theory, or pure fiction, is used to portray them.
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- Original writings of the Bavarian Illuminati compiled by Terry Melanson