The most famous political secret society of all time, the focus of countless conspiracy theories and paranoid fantasies for more than two centuries, the Ancient Illuminated Seers of Bavaria was founded on May 1, 1776, by a professor at the University of Ingolstadt named Adam Weishaupt and four of his friends. Weishaupt was an avid student of the liberal ideas proposed by Voltaire, Diderot, and other French philosophers of the time; he hoped to foster progressive ideas in conservative, intensely Catholic Bavaria, and especially at his university, where liberal faculty members struggled against a clique of ex-Jesuits whose influence remained intact even after the Society of Jesus had been dissolved in 1773. He became a Freemason in 1774, but found the Craft’s ban on political and religious discussions little to his taste. The birth of the Illuminati in 1776 was the logical result, an attempt to use the Masonic model as a tool for liberal cultural politics.
From this modest start the order grew slowly. In 1779 it had 54 members, divided among five colonies (local lodges) in Bavaria. Membership growth was limited by the intensive course of study Weishaupt set out for his initiates. Weishaupt believed in the essential goodness of human nature, arguing that only the burdens of religious obscurantism and fossilized tradition stood in the way of universal human enlightenment; he originally planned to call his order the Perfectibilists, because of its focus on the possibility of human perfection, but settled on Illuminati as a reference to the enlightened attitudes he hoped to foster. Illuminati novices thus started their studies with classical moral writers such as Aristotle and Cato, and then went on to contemporary philosophers such as Holbach and Helvetius. A process of self-examination, guided by written questionnaires and the close supervision of a senior initiate, helped direct the novice toward the goal of this strenuous training program – the creation of an elite of enlightened initiates who would insinuate themselves into influential positions in Bavarian society and transform the kingdom into a Utopia.
Illuminati recruitment focused on the socially prominent, the wealthy, and the talented from the very beginning. Starting in 1779, a new and highly successful second recruitment front opened as Illuminati began to infiltrate Masonic lodges in Germany and elsewhere, recruiting Masonic leaders and taking control of lodges. Xavier Zwack, the architect of this new strategy and one of Weishaupt’s senior lieutenants, started the process with the successful takeover of an important Munich lodge. By 1784 the order had spread through much of central Europe, with active colonies in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Bohemia (now the Czech Republic), Hungary, and northern Italy, and the total number of Illuminati who had received the Illuminatus Minor degree (the basic working degree of the order) topped 650.
Codes, ciphers, and secret names played an important role in the Illuminati system. Each member had a code name; for example, Weishaupt was Spartacus, Zwack was Cato, and Baron von Knigge, another leader, was Philo. Places also had code names: Ingolstadt was Eleusis, Munich was Athens, and Vienna was Rome. Communications between members were always in cipher, and even the names of months were disguised.
By the period of the order’s greatest growth, however, the secrecy essential to its survival had been breached. Some of its members talked too freely about the order’s opposition to religious and political autocracy. In 1782, when Illuminati agents attended the great Masonic conclave at Wilhemsbad in an effort to take control of the crumbling Strict Observance, important attendees such as Jean-Baptiste Willermoz already knew enough about the order to checkmate their plans, and the Illuminati went away empty-handed. By 1784 horrifying rumors about the Illuminati were in circulation in Bavaria itself, and the Bavarian government imposed an edict banning secret organizations; 1785 saw another edict proscribing the Illuminati by name.
Weishaupt fled into exile, and ordered Illuminati lodges in Bavaria to go to ground, but his hopes of rebuilding the Illuminati in secret were dashed in 1786 when Bavarian police raided Xavier Zwack’s house and seized copies of hundreds of the order’s documents, including Weishaupt’s own secret correspondence. Most of the Illuminati in Bavaria either left the kingdom or were jailed. Weishaupt himself moved to Gotha, in relatively liberal Saxony, where he settled down to a quiet career as a professor of philosophy and writer.
Most of the other Illuminati scattered in the same way, though a handful attempted to restart something close to Weishaupt’s organization. Christoph Bode, an influential Illuminatus, made two visits to Paris in an attempt to interest French radicals in Weishaupt’s teachings. Among his most important converts was Nicholas de Bonneville, a lawyer who went on to become one of the most influential radical journalists of the French Revolution and the founder of an important secret society, the Social Circle. Filippo Buonarroti, who would become the most influential revolutionary of the early nineteenth century, belonged to a Masonic lodge in Italy that had briefly been under Illuminati control, and he spent the rest of his long life using Illuminati methods in an attempt to foster liberal revolutions across Europe.
The Bavarian Illuminati was one among many minor secret societies of the late eighteenth century, and might well have become nothing more than a footnote to the history of the time. Between its origins in 1776 and its suppression by the Bavarian government in 1786, it succeeded in a small way in its primary goal of spreading French Enlightenment ideas in conservative Bavaria, and won some influence over the more liberal end of German public opinion, but that was all. It is one of the great ironies of secret-society history that this modest achievement launched the most remarkable of all the myths that make up contemporary conspiracy theory, and turned Adam Weishaupt’s circle of would-be reformers into the foundation of a sprawling mythology of global domination by the ultimate secret society.
The dawn of the Illuminati myth was the Bavarian government’s publication of papers seized from Illuminati in 1786. The papers launched a brief furor in the conservative press of the time, but probably would have been forgotten had the French Revolution not broken out three years later. The first years of revolution saw references to the Illuminati in antimasonic publications, and now and again the suggestion that Weishaupt’s society or something like it might be behind France’s political troubles. The real transformation of the Illuminati from a minor episode in the history of secret societies to the centerpiece of two centuries of paranoid speculation, though, began in 1797, with the publication in London of the first two volumes of Augustin de Barruel’s Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire du Jacobinisme (Memoirs serving as a History of Jacobinism).
De Barruel was an ex-Jesuit, a Catholic priest, and an author of conservative political tracts who had fled revolutionary France in 1792. He had become convinced that a widespread conspiracy was responsible for the Revolution. While he blamed Freemasons and philosophers for helping to lay the groundwork for the overthrow of the French monarchy, he argued that an inner circle within Masonry had deliberately planned the whole affair as part of a sinister crusade against monarchy and Christianity. That hidden inner circle, he insisted, was none other than the Bavarian Illuminati. Despite the complete lack of evidence presented for the claim in de Barruel’s book, his idea was taken up enthusiastically by conservatives in France and elsewhere, who found it impossible to believe that the French people might have had a reason to overthrow the most corrupt and inefficient monarchy in Europe.
In the same year that the first volumes of de Barruel’s work appeared, a Scottish Freemason, John Robison, published a book of his own, with the inflammatory title Proofs of a Conspiracy against all the Religions and Governments of Europe, carried on in the secret Meetings of Free Masons, Illuminati, and Reading Societies. Robison’s motivation was curious; he wanted to protect British Freemasonry by distancing it from the political activities of Masons in France and Italy and throwing the blame for the French Revolution on the Illuminati. Robison’s book was savaged by critics for its shaky logic and lack of evidence, but was regularly reprinted and has had an immense influence on conspiracy theories in the English-speaking world ever since.
De Barruel and Robison between them caused an immediate sensation across Europe; their claims were taken up enthusiastically by conservatives as a weapon against liberal opponents. Robison’s and de Barruel’s ideas blended with the parallel mythology of the Knights Templar and media reports about actual nineteenth-century secret societies to make the vision of secret societies opposed to monarchy, Christianity, and property an item of faith for most European conservatives throughout the 1800s. The same beliefs found a home in a different social milieu on the far side of the Atlantic, where Robison’s book sparked a brief antimasonic witchhunt in the 1790s. The belief in sinister Illuminati plots fed into the antimasonic movement of the 1830s, became an item of faith among the Know-Nothings of the 1840s, and helped lay the foundations for the rise of fundamentalism in the early twentieth century.
The next stage in the development of the Illuminati mythology came in the aftermath of the First World War. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an antisemitic hoax claiming that Jews were behind an international conspiracy to enslave the world, and the success of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 gave a massive boost to conspiracy theories worldwide. Nesta Webster, the leading light among British conspiracy writers, responded to the Russian revolution in much the same way Robison and de Barruel had responded to the French, arguing that a vast conspiracy must have been needed to cause it. Her books argued, however, for a “One Big Conspiracy” theory in which the Bolsheviks, and the Illuminati themselves, were merely pawns in a larger game, manipulated along with countless other groups by an inner core of Jewish Satanists. These ideas found a ready audience throughout the western world, and helped feed the fascist movements of the 1920s and 1930s in Europe and America. See Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
The Second World War and the revelations of Nazi atrocities against the Jews made antisemitic conspiracy theories difficult to defend publicly, but did nothing to dispel the popular appeal of conspiracy theories in general. The Illuminati mythology proved more than capable of filling the void. A crucial role in the postwar expansion of Illuminati-hunting was played by Robert Welch, founder and chief ideologist of the John Birch Society. Welch started his career as an anticommunist, but became convinced that communism itself was simply a pawn in the hands of a shadowy league of wealthy “Insiders,” who manipulated parties and movements across the political and social spectra. Welch drew extensively from de Barruel and Robison in his writings and explicitly identified his “Insiders” as the Illuminati.
Welch’s claims helped make the second half of the twentieth century a golden age of speculation about the Illuminati, and did much to ensure that these speculations would proliferate free of the limits of evidence or logic. Since the original sources on Weishaupt’s society had been all but forgotten, and even de Barruel and Robison were cited far more often than they were read, the shadow of the Illuminati could be stretched or cropped as needed to cover any desired collection of facts or fantasies. Thus the original Illuminati, with their dream of human moral perfection and their commitment to liberal ideals, have been completely eclipsed. Most of the conspiracy theories about the Illuminati nowadays claim that the order consists of 13 extremely wealthy families who already run the world, but who have been plotting for thousands of years to impose a Satanic dictatorship on the entire planet in the next few decades.
The result has been an extraordinary profusion of imaginative theories uniting all the world’s real or imagined secret societies under the Illuminati banner. One widely quoted theory claims that the Illuminati were founded in Mesopotamia sometime around 300,000 BCE, when a group of conspirators infiltrated an existing secret society called the Brotherhood of the Snake. Since the first Homo sapiens apparently didn’t come into being until sometime after 100,000 BCE, this theory would make the Illuminati conspiracy substantially older than our species, and indeed older than the Neanderthals. The thought of a contemporary secret society dating back to Homo erectus may seem dizzying at first glance, but compared to some other theories about the Illuminati – such as David Icke’s claim that the world is ruled by a secret aristocracy of shape-shifting reptiles from the constellation Draco – it is relatively tame.
The sheer diversity of Illuminati theories has driven many attempts to force some sort of order on all the confusion. Many writers simply insist that all secret societies are the Illuminati, or that the Illuminati themselves are actually another organization called Moriah Conquering Wind. Others have arranged the different groups into a neat hierarchical pyramid. The most common scheme of this sort, included in many books and websites about the Illuminati, starts at the top with the degree of the All-Seeing Eye, which is held personally by Lucifer. Next comes the Rothschild Tribunal or RT, the inner circle of Rothschild family members, whom other Illuminati allegedly regard as gods in human form. Below them is the Great Druid Council, staffed by 13 great druids who form the Rothschild family’s private priesthood, although why a family of Jewish bankers would have Celtic Pagan priests is an interesting question rarely discussed. The next two levels of the pyramid are the Council of Thirty-Three, consisting of the highest Freemasons; and the Committee of 300, made up of families of satanic nobility, headed by the British Crown. Ordinary, garden-variety Illuminati fall somewhere beneath this baroque hierarchy, which brings most of the popular candidates for the post of hidden masters of the world into a single scheme.
Predictably, all this myth-making has propelled at least two known attempts to revive the Bavarian Illuminati, at least in name. Masonic entrepreneur Theodor Reuss, better known as the originator of the Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO), was also involved in an attempt to relaunch the Illuminati. He and his associate Leopold Engel raised the Illuminati banner in 1895 in Berlin, but a split between Engel and Reuss sent the latter pursuing other projects. Engel’s Illuminati continued to exist until the middle years of the twentieth century, when it merged with the Ordo Templi Orientis.
Nearly half a world away, a group of Berkeley, California college students, loosely affiliated with the Discordian movement, proclaimed themselves as the Bavarian Illuminati in 1968 and sent out raucous proclamations to a bemused world for several years thereafter.
- Society of Jesus (Jesuits)
- Weishaupt, Adam
- Rite of Strict Observance
- Buonarroti, Filippo
- Social Circle
- Sublime Perfect Masters
- Antimasonic Party
- Know-Nothing Party
- Knights Templar
- John Birch Society
- Committee of 300
- Moriah Conquering Wind
- Ordo Templi Orientis
- Reuss, Theodor
- Discordian movement
The Element Encyclopedia of Secret Societies : the ultimate a-z of ancient mysteries, lost civilizations and forgotten wisdom written by John Michael Greer – © John Michael Greer 2006