When you hear the name Illuminati, what are your first thoughts? If you’re like most people, you immediately imagine a secret cabal of the rich and powerful, pulling the puppet strings of government and organized religion. Well, don’t get your hopes up, the real Illuminati, the Bavarian Illuminati, were anything but… 

It began on May 1, 1776. After considering several names, Adam Weishaupt, a canon law professor at the University of Ingolstadt and four of his students settled on the Illuminati, plural of the Latin word Illuminatus, meaning enlightened. For their symbol, they chose the Owl of Minerva, representative of wisdom. Anti-clerical at their core, the objective of the Illuminati was to oppose religious and state control while promoting their own philosophies.  

To understand the Illuminati, it is important to discuss how unoriginal their content was and how this influenced their rise and ultimate fall. To do this, we must first begin with Freemasonry, the preeminent secret society of the time. The Freemasons had essentially drafted the blueprint to “enlightenment” in which members were progressed through various levels of secret knowledge via allegorical rituals and rites. In a broad sense, they had mastered an educational system for esoteric teachings. Their method was well-established and to this day continues to influence how that information is presented to students of the mysteries.  

Much like the hard sciences, the greater truths of these teachings are universal, therefore cannot be owned, per se, by any school. The problem for Weishaupt is that he didn’t know them, at least the higher secrets anyway. Further, he didn’t understand how to present them, i.e., cloak them in an appropriate ritual or allegory. So, like any aspiring occultist, he faked it until he could make it. 

Weishaupt’s strategy was to essentially co-opt Freemasonry. After joining a Masonic lodge in 1777 and progressing through the three degrees of the “blue lodge,” Weishaupt was permitted a charter for his own lodge in 1778. He called it “Theodore of the Good Council” as a nod to Charles Theodore, Elector of Bavaria, to stay within his good graces. With his own lodge to work from, Weishaupt continued to recruit Illuminati from the ranks of the Freemasons.  

Knowledge of the higher mysteries still eluded the Illuminati, which is rather ironic considering their name. To remedy this, Weishaupt intensified his tactics of espionage, essentially creating a spy network to infiltrate not only Freemason lodges, but those of the Rosicrucians, who were at the opposing political spectrum of the Illuminati. The Rosicrucians, at the time, were both pro-church and pro-monarchy and possessed a significant amount of clout.  

Things took a positive turn for the Illuminati in 1780 with the recruitment of Adolph Knigge, an accomplished Freemason who shared Weishaupt’s progressive ideals toward human rights and anti-authoritarian sentiment. The well-connected Knigge quickly rose through the ranks and became one of Weishaupt’s most valuable recruiters. However, when Knigge’s advancement to the higher levels of the order were continuously delayed, Weishaupt had to confess that they didn’t yet exist.  

Knigge was not dismayed by this. Instead, with Weishaupt’s permission, he set about creating the requisite rituals and rewriting the existing ones, giving the Illuminati its own identity apart from Freemasonry, even if the content was derivative. Whether the higher truths were ever realized is uncertain, though the ranks and rituals now existed. With consistency in its rites and dogma established, the Illuminati was finally taking form. 

At its peak, the Illuminati gathered some of Germany and Europe’s most influential politicians, philosophers, and writers, though their total number likely never exceeded 2000. Their legacy, however, is far from the despot crushing, church smiting, secret society that Weishaupt imagined. Ironically, they are remembered more for the questionable ethics of Weishaupt in headhunting his membership, obsessive espionage, and outright theft of Freemasonry. 

By 1784, Weishaupt employed spies upon spies, setting up a network so complex it would inspire organized espionage for generations. In the end, he proved to be his own worst enemy, becoming increasingly paranoid and extremely vocal in accusing his transgressors. Numerous letters were intercepted where he called out his perceived enemies to those he thought were friends, never really knowing which was which. He was domineering, obstinate, and brash, destroying his own organization with the same hypocrisy that it was founded against.  

Charles Theodore of Bavaria brought down the hammer in 1784, banning secret societies. Weishaupt was forced to resign from the University of Ingolstadt and flee Bavaria. The Freemasons and Rosicrucians, for their part, made him a pariah and spread outlandish rumors about the illuminati, insinuating that they had members in the highest levels of power and were trying to overthrow the church and various governments. The Illuminati were effectively ended by 1785.  

So how did such a short lived, wannabe secret society transcend the centuries to become the go-to bogey men of modern conspiracy theorists? Did they somehow survive extinction, lurking in the shadows, to suddenly ambush us with the New World Order? 

The answer isn’t a definitive no.  

First, let me just say, that Weishaupt’s illuminati failed, miserably. Though, in its failure, it did become notorious. After Charles’s edict, several high-ranking Illuminati members’ homes were raided, including Xavier Von Zwack, which contained a trove of Illuminati documents that were later published. This had the effect of presenting them as, perhaps, greater than they might have been, as well as giving something for researchers to chew on. Though, in my opinion, had the Illuminati not been so interconnected and conflated with the Freemasons, it is doubtful that they would be remembered at all.  

In the early 1800s, two noteworthy books were published on the Illuminati: Memoirs Illustrating the History of Jacobinism by Agustin Barruel and A Proof of Conspiracy by John Robinson. Both books made outlandish claims about the group surviving and even contributing to the French Revolution. Both books were immensely popular, enjoyed numerous reprints, and were well circulated in the United States. 

Modern writers, most humorously Robert Anton Wilson in his Illuminatus! Trilogy, have endowed the Illuminati with immense power and almost infinite reach. Today they are practically synonymous with the concept of global conspiracy. But why? Is there any fire to the voluminous amounts of smoke? I do have a theory.  

Around 1830, a young man named William Huntington Russell studied abroad at the University of Berlin. While there, he became particularly interested in a certain, unnamed secret society. In 1831, when he resumed his studies at Yale University, he and a fellow student named Alphonso Taft formed a modest college fraternity known as the Order of Skull and Bones.  

But that is a story for our next installment.