The Illuminati: 13 questions about the clandestine secret society answered

Who were the Illuminati, and do they really control the world? Here's what we know about one of history's most alluring secret societies, including how you became a member...

The ‘Eye of Providence’, a symbol linked to the Illuminati, stares out from the reverse side of all US one-dollar bills

What is the Illuminati?

The Illuminati is a name given to both a real and fictitious society. The latter has fuelled conspiracy theories for years, with people claiming it to be a secretive and mysterious worldwide organisation intent on world domination – as well as being behind some of history’s greatest revolutions and assassinations.

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What was the original Illuminati?

The Illuminati was a secret society formed in Bavaria (now part of modern-day Germany) that existed from 1776 to 1785 – its members originally referred to themselves as Perfectibilists. The group was inspired by the ideals of the Enlightenment and founded by professor of canon law Adam Weishaupt. He wanted to promote the education of reason and philanthropy and oppose superstition and religious influence in society. Weishaupt sought to change the way states in Europe were run, removing the influence of religion from government and giving people a new source of ‘illumination’.

It’s believed that the Bavarian Illuminati’s first meeting was held in a forest near Ingolstadt on 1 May 1776. Here, five men set out the rules that would govern the secret order.

Eventually the group’s aims focused on influencing political decisions and disrupting institutions like the monarchy and the Church. Some members of the Illuminati joined the Freemasons in order to recruit new members. A bird known as the ‘owl of Minerva’ (Minerva being the ancient Roman goddess of wisdom) eventually became its main symbol.

How is the Illuminati connected to the Freemasons?

The Freemasons are a fraternal order that evolved from the guilds of stonemasons and cathedral builders of the Middle Ages. In some countries, especially the US, there has historically been a lot of paranoia about the Freemasons – in 1828, a single-issue political movement known as the Anti-Masonic Party was even established. Due to the original Illuminati recruitment of Freemasons, the two groups have often been confused for each other.

How could you join the Illuminati?

To join the Illuminati, you had to have full consent from the other members, possess wealth, and have a good reputation within a suitable family. There was also a hierarchical system to Illuminati membership. After entering as a ‘novice’, you graduated to a ‘minerval’ and then an ‘illuminated minerval’, although this structure later became more complicated, with 13 degrees of initiation required in order to become a member.

A 19th-century depiction of an Illuminati initiation ritual. In reality, scant details about the true nature of the ceremony remain
A 19th-century depiction of an Illuminati initiation ritual. In reality, scant details about the true nature of the ceremony remain (Photo by: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Did the Illuminati use rituals?

They did use rituals – most of which remain unknown – and pseudonyms were used to keep the identities of members a secret. However, the rituals we do know about (found in seized, secret papers) explain how novices could move to a higher level within the Illuminati’s hierarchy: they had to compile a report on all the books they owned, write a list of their weaknesses, and reveal the names of any enemies they had. The novice would then promise to sacrifice personal interests for the good of the society.

What is the all-seeing eye?

The ‘Eye of Providence’ – a symbol resembling an eye inside a triangle – appears on churches around the globe, as well as on Masonic buildings and the US one-dollar bill. In addition to being associated with Freemasonry, it has also been linked with the Illuminati as a symbol of the group’s control and surveillance of the world.

Originally a Christian emblem, the all-seeing eye has been used in paintings to represent God’s watchfulness over humanity. In the 18th century, it began to be used in new ways – for example, in Jean-Jacques-François Le Barbier’s The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, an illustrated version of the human rights document adopted by France’s National Constituent Assembly in 1789. Here, it is depicted as an instrument of paternalistic reason, keeping a watchful eye over the newly democratic nation.

There is no official link between the all-seeing eye and the Illuminati – the proposed connection probably stems from the fact that the original group shared similarities with the Freemasons, who used the image as a symbol of God.

Did the Illuminati succeed in world domination?

Some people believe that the Illuminati controls the world today, suggesting that they are so secretive that few are aware of it. As many members of the Illuminati infiltrated the Freemasons and vice versa, it’s difficult to judge the Illuminati’s success, but most historians believe the original group only gained moderate influence.

Were there any famous members Illuminati?

By 1782, the Illuminati had grown to around 600 members – these included German nobles such as Baron Adolph von Knigge who, as a former Freemason, helped shape the group’s organisation and expansion. Initially, Weishaupt’s students were the only members, but soon, doctors, lawyers and intellectuals joined. There were between 2,000 and 3,000 Illuminati members by 1784. Some sources say that renowned writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe also joined, but this is disputed.

Why did the Illuminati disappear?

In 1784, Karl Theodor, Duke of Bavaria, banned the creation of any kind of society not previously authorised by law and the following year he passed a second edict, which expressly banned the Illuminati. During the arrest of suspected Illuminati members, compromising documents (defending ideas such as atheism and suicide) were found in their possession, as well as instructions for carrying out abortions.

This cemented the belief that the group was a threat to both the state and the Church. The Illuminati then seems to have disappeared, with some people believing that it continued underground.

What happened to Adam Weishaupt?

Adam Weishaupt was eventually stripped of his post at the University of Ingolstadt. After being exiled from Bavaria, he spent the remainder of his life in Gotha, Thuringia, dying in 1830.

Why did the myth of the Illuminati endure?

From the moment they disbanded, conspiracy theories about the Illuminati began to take hold. In 1797, French publicist and Jesuit priest Abbé Augustin Barruel suggested that secret societies like the Illuminati had spearheaded the French Revolution. First president of the US, George Washington, then wrote a letter the following year in which he stated that he believed the threat of the Illuminati had been avoided, adding further fuel to the idea that the order still existed. Books and sermons condemning the group later sprung up, and third US president, Thomas Jefferson, was falsely accused of being a member.

Conspiracy theorists have accused the Illuminati of being the culprits behind numerous assassinations, including that of John F Kennedy
Conspiracy theorists have accused the Illuminati of being the culprits behind numerous assassinations, including that of John F Kennedy (Photo by Carl Mydans/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)

Why do people still believe in the Illuminati today?

The idea of a world-dominating Illuminati has never really left people’s minds, and still infiltrates popular culture today. In 1963, a text called the Principia Discordia was published, promoting an alternative belief system known as ‘Discordianism’. Calling for anarchism and civil disobedience by perpetrating hoaxes, its adherents included writer Robert Anton Wilson. Some followers of Discordianism sent fake letters into magazines claiming that events such as the assassination of US president John F Kennedy were all the work of the Illuminati.

Wilson later published a book with Robert Shea, The Illuminatus! Trilogy, which became a cult success and inspired a new genre of conspiracy fiction, including Dan Brown’s novel (and subsequent film) Angels & Demons. The Illuminati also became connected with Satanism and other ideals that were far removed from those associated with the original 18th-century Bavarian group.

What is the New World Order and how does it connect to the Illuminati?

Those who believe in the theory of a New World Order believe that an elite group of people are trying to rule the globe. As well as US presidents, several popstars have been accused of being members, including Beyoncé and Jay-Z. Both have denied the claims.

Emma Slattery Williams is BBC History Revealed‘s staff writer

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This content first appeared in the May 2021 issue of BBC History Revealed