The Real Illuminati
With the May 15th release of the big budget film of Dan Brown’s Angels & Demons, it's worth examining who the real Illuminati were, where they came from, and just why their legacy continues to capture the public imagination.
The Dan Brown version of the Illuminati
Dan Brown resurrected the Illuminati for his first Robert Langdon novel, Angels & Demons, like so many others have, as little more than a bogeyman. Using the Illuminati allowed Brown to engage his characters in Enlightenment-style diatribes about the supremacy of science over religion. In the end (stop here if you haven’t read it), it turns out that the mysterious head of the Illuminati, Janus, has perpetrated a hoax, and resurrected the name of the Order as a diversionary tactic to hide his own individual treachery. It’s a favorite Brown tactic – use the bad guy to spout your most controversial ideas, so you have a back-door escape hatch.
“The brotherhood of the Illuminati is also factual,” says Dan Brown’s “Author’s Note” in Angels & Demons. Not the way he wrote it, it isn’t. Brown’s fictional Illuminati was supposed to have been a group of scientists who rebelled secretly against Church dogma in the 1500’s. According to his story, scientists who failed to knuckle under to Church teachings and demands were arrested, tortured, branded on the chest with a super-special branding iron identifying them as members of the subversive group, and their bodies tossed into the streets of Rome as a warning. According to Brown, astronomer Galileo Galilee was a member, and they met secretly in an underground Church of the Illumination. Eventually, in the 1600s, the Illuminati became dedicated to the toppling of the Church and Christianity itself. They became Satanists, and were referred to as Shaitan, the Islamic word for Satan, by the Catholic Church. Breathlessly, Langdon describes them as the “world’s oldest and most powerful satanic cult.”
Brown uses a clever device in his books, dressing up old, secret and often fictional societies to get in his licks against the Church. The history of Catholic abuses, mistakes and injustices is long, exciting and sad enough, without Brown exaggerating them to an absurd degree. And one thing is for certain: the one thing the Illuminati was not was “satanic.”
The Age of Enlightenment, a period that lasted roughly throughout the hundred years of the 1700’s in Europe and America, was an intellectual, scientific and philosophical movement all rolled into one. It was a time when the scientific method of experimentation and reason replaced the more superstitious attitudes of the Middle Ages, a time of revolution, scientific discovery and invention. The very term Enlightenment was chosen as a contrast to the Dark Ages, and light and illumination became a metaphor for knowledge and republicanism (meaning governments free of kings, popes and their “divine rights”). In fact, late medieval adepts at alchemy or the sciences were sometimes called “the Illuminated Ones.”
The first group to be associated with the term Illuminati (“Illuminated Ones”) were known in Spain as the Alumbrados. Appearing in the late 1400’s, not much is known about this sect of Christian mystics. They apparently believed in trance-like meditation to the exclusion of all other thoughts in order to commune with God, and they developed decidedly un-Catholic beliefs, such as the notion that female adepts copulating with priests released souls from Purgatory. Not surprisingly, the Spanish Inquisition came crashing down on the Alumbrados like a ton of evangelical bricks.
What really brought down the wrath of the Church on the Alumbrados was their belief that Man could achieve enough perfection through meditation and prayer to become sinless. Where they got into hot water was the belief that, if you achieved sinless perfection, you would no longer have to fast or even pray, and you wouldn’t have to deny your physical body anything anymore. Your mind would become divine, so whatever you did with your body was of no consequence. See if your wife buys that story.
A French group appeared in the early 1600’s known as the Illuminés, and they seem to have been an offshoot of the Spanish Alumbrados. But these groups have no real connection to the Illuminati that is at the center of so many conspiracy theories today, apart from the same name.
The Bavarian Illuminati – Short Life, Long Legacy
In 1776, just before the Continental Congress declared American independence from England, on the other side of the world a new “secret society” that was to become the Illuminati was born in Ingolstadt, Bavaria. First called The Perfectabilists, the group was the brainchild of a young university professor named Adam Weishaupt.
The man who would found the Illuminati had an unlikely background for the leader of such a radical organization. He was born in Ingolstadt in 1748. When his father died seven years later, Adam was placed in the care of his godfather, Baron Johann Adam Ickstatt*, who was curator of the University of Ingstadt. The University was a Catholic school, and the majority of the administration and teaching staff were Jesuit priests.
Weishaupt kept things in the family, and graduated from the University in 1768. He spent another four years there as a tutor, and in 1772 he was made a full professor of civil law. What makes all of this important in his development is that, a year later, Pope Clement XIV had an explosive disagreement with the Jesuits, and completely dissolved the Order. As a result, the young Weishaupt was appointed to the chair of canon (Catholic) law, the first non-Jesuit and layman to have the position in almost 100 years.
What made his appointment ironic is that Weishaupt was unquestionably anti-Catholic, on the quiet. He spent years studying the philosophies and beliefs of the free-thinking Enlightenment writers, and had no patience with superstition, miracles or sacraments. Unfortunately, he was in the sticky situation of earning his livelihood at a Catholic university, teaching canon law as proscribed by the Vatican!
Spartacus and the Areopagites
On May 1st, 1776, he formed his secret society, with just five original members. Weishaupt had a big goal in mind for such a small bunch. He believed that a group dedicated to mutual aid, intellectualism and philosophical free thought could help change the world by influencing the movers and shakers of society.
But a peaceful change was not really what Weishaupt had in mind. In order to change society, kings and princes, as well as church leaders, all had to be, well, gotten rid of first. These were the foes of his brand of enlightenment and republican thinking. And, of course, because he and his four young friends saw themselves as being superior to most of the common herd, they would remain in control of this new, improved society. In addition, at first anyway, they had no interest in recruiting anyone much over the age of 35 or so, because such “old” men were too creaky and set in their ways. This would change over time, as they discovered they needed important, well-placed men who were already in positions of some influence, to infiltrate the military and halls of government.
Because of his position at a Catholic university, which would undoubtedly be less than ecstatic over one of its professors writing anti-Catholic essays, he and his organizers communicated using code names. At least two of the other four members, known as the Areopagites, were students at the university, known by their secret names Ajax and Tiberius. Writing as “Spartacus,” Weishaupt outlined a secret plan to infiltrate the Freemasons’ lodges, and then overthrow governments of nations and churches, take over the world, and create a new world order of tolerance and equality.
It was as simple as that.
The name of the organization itself changed over time, from Perfectabilists, to the Bees, and finally the Illuminati. In code, it was represented by a point within a circle. The symbol was meant to represent the Sun illuminating all bodies in its orbit.
A Masonic connection?
In 1777, Weishaupt joined a Masonic lodge, Munich’s Lodge Theodore of Good Counsel(Lodge Theodore von der guten Rath)*, and began looking for like-minded brethren to recruit into his circle of the Illuminati. Unlike the overwhelming majority of so-called secret societies that sprung up all over Europe in the 1700’s, Weishaupt’s Illuminati was definitely not preoccupied with occultism, mysticism, esotericism or hidden knowledge. At least, not the medieval, alchemical kind of stuff that groups like the Rosicrucians were hunting. In fact, anything that seemed to have been influenced by Judaism, Kabbalah, Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular, was not allowed to seep into the Illuminati rituals.
What there was plenty of was secrecy. An overwhelming stress was placed on the memorization of ciphers – secret writing codes. As the years progressed, Illuminati members were instructed in how to mix poisons, prepare for suicide in case of discovery, and even how to construct “infernal machines” in which to hide their secret papers – explosive boxes that would self-destruct if tampered with. The Illuminati created groups of members who were to infiltrate Masonic lodges and take control of them. Called the Insinuators, they quickly invaded the membership of Munich’s Lodge Theodore of Good Counsel, and totally controlled it by 1779.
A friend of Weishaupt’s, Baron Adolf Franz Friederich Knigge, was a well-known diplomat and Freemason in Bavaria and assisted him with developing ceremonial rituals for the new Illuminati, based on the Masonic model – sort of. He became a member of the Illuminati in 1780.
Eventually, Knigge crafted 12 degrees in all for the group. There were three degrees for new members: Novice, Minerval and Illuminated Minerval. With its new structure finally in place, and Knigge’s help in recruiting prominent and influential members, the Illuminati started to catch on. The German poet Johann Goethe became a member. In a relatively short period of time, the group attracted at least 2,000 members in Germany, Austria, Belgium, Holland, Denmark, Sweden, Poland, Hungary, Italy and France.
The Congress of Wilhelmsbad
In 1782, a curious event occurred in the town of Wilhelmsbad, billed as a Congress of Masonry. Freemasonry had developed very differently on the European continent than it had in Britain and the Americas, and it had taken some strange and sinister turns, especially in the German states. Delegates came to the conference from Austria, France, Italy, Holland and Russia.
Between the Illuminati’s growing influence in Masonic lodges on the one side, and another German group called the Rite Of Strict Observance on the other, mainstream Freemasons were alarmed about the direction these new groups were taking them. Freemasonry had been developed to enhance society by taking good men and improving their character, making them better citizens. Masonic secrecy was simply a demonstration of honor among its members. But these new groups were something different, with a militant obsession over secrecy, and almost no interest in any of that character building malarkey. More than a few disgruntled Masons went home convinced they had to do something to stop this new movement.
The Illuminati cracks up
At the same time, the Illuminati was starting to crack from within. Weishaupt had become bolder in his professional life, and his Catholic students at the University of Ingoldstadt were being increasingly subjected to his anti-Catholic tirades. Knigge became convinced that Weishaupt was really a closet Jesuit spy, and came to completely distrust him. He handed over all of his Illuminati material in 1784 and stalked out of the order. Other defections soon followed for different reasons.
Several ex-members went to the Duchess of Bavaria, Maria Anna, with Illuminati documents and a membership list. Confronted with clear evidence of a group that was actively gunning for their regal positions, she took it to her husband, the Duke of Bavaria, Carl Theodore. As monarch of Bavaria, he quickly enacted a law forbidding any and all groups, clubs or societies that hadn’t been authorized by the state, and a year later clarified his position by naming the Illuminati specifically as the group he was really after. Weishaupt soldiered on, creating a flurry of anti-Catholic and anti-monarchial pamphlets. The Duke at last issued arrest warrants against him and the Areopagites in 1785. *
Weishaupt fled Bavaria to Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg in central Germany, but left behind his incriminating papers, outlining the Illuminati’s ambitious, if bizarre and downright silly, plans for world domination. They were widely published throughout Europe to expose the Illuminati and to flush out other members, many of whom were in government, military and university positions. A large number of them wound up in prison, and more were banished from Bavaria altogether.
The Bavarian Order of the Illuminati died officially in 1785, and its secrets and Evil Plans For World Domination™ were discovered, published and ridiculed, eventually worldwide. It was never popular, and the movement died out completely by the end of the century. But the phantom of the Illuminati survived in the public’s memory. Because of its ties to many European Freemasons of the period, the two groups became intertwined in the public imagination.
As for the Illuminati’s founder, Weishaupt himself became so obscure that the date of his death is not known for certain. Some say 1811, and others say 1830.* He wrote several apologetic treatises about the order over the years. And he promised to never, ever, ever try to take over the world again. Cross his heart.
Illuminati in America?
The life and death of the Illuminati in Europe has been well documented, and many of the organization’s papers were greatly publicized after Weishaupt fled Bavaria. But the Illuminati’s time span coincided with the early days of the fledgling United States, during and immediately after the American Revolution. Trustworthy records of the group’s activities in America – if indeed there were any – are difficult to come by.
George Washington was sent a copy of John Robison’s book, Proofs Of A Conspiracy, warning him of the spread of Illuminism, and the possible infiltration of Freemason lodges (of which Washington was a member). He wrote, “I believe notwithstanding, that none of the Lodges in this Country are contaminated with the principles ascribed to the Society of the Illuminati.” In a follow-up letter he explained that he did not
“…doubt that, the Doctrines of the Illuminati, and principles of Jacobinism had not spread in the United States. On the contrary, no one is more truly satisfied of this fact than I am. The idea that I meant to convey, was, that I did not believe that the Lodges of Free Masons in this Country had, as Societies, endeavoured to propagate the diabolical tenets of the first, or pernicious principles of the latter (if they are susceptible of seperation)."
It has been alleged by some researchers that a Columbia Lodge of the Illuminati was started in New York City in 1785. Over the next four years, allegedly, as many as 14 more Illuminati lodges sprung up in the 13 states, including one in Virginia that supposedly counted Thomas Jefferson as a member. But there is no proof whatsoever that such lodges ever existed.
The supposed Columbia Lodge of the Illuminati has been claimed to have been the fraternal refuge of New York Governor Dewitt Clinton, newspaper editor and future politician Horace Greeley, and New York politician Clinton Roosevelt. Roosevelt himself, it has been claimed over the years, used the philosophy of the Illuminati in his 1841 book, Science Of Government Founded On Natural Law. He was a distant cousin of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and there are some who claim that the book is a blueprint for both Karl Marx’s 1848 Communist Manifesto and FDR’s socialistic New Deal programs of the 1930’s. Those looking under the rug for a conspiracy claim that the Illuminati, through Clinton Roosevelt, created Communism along with FDR’s New Deal programs. And as icing on the cake, it was FDR (who was also a Freemason, by the way) who put the All-Seeing Eye and the unfinished pyramid on the back of the U.S. one dollar bill. Which are, as any good conspiracist knows, symbols of the Illuminati. Or the Masons. Or both. We forget which, since the All-Seeing Eye in a triangle that appears in the U.S. Great Seal actually started out in the Rennaissance as a Christian symbol for God, and appears in 16th century Catholic church paintings.
(Adapted from "Conspiracy Theories & Secret Societies For Dummies")