The Illuminati 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, prejudice, religious influence over public life and abuses of state power, and to support women’s education and gender equality.
The Illuminati—along with other secret societies—were outlawed by the Bavarian ruler, Charles Theodore, with the encouragement of the Roman Catholic Church, and were permanently disbanded in 1785.
In the several years following, the group was vilified by conservative and religious critics who claimed that they had regrouped 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.
The Illuminati movement was founded on May 1, 1776 in Ingolstadt, Upper Bavaria as the Order of the Illuminati, and had an initial membership of five.
The founder was the Jesuit-taught Adam Weishaupt (d. 1830), who was the first lay professor of canon law at the University of Ingolstadt. The Order was made up of freethinkers as an offshoot of the Enlightenment and seems to have been modelled on the Freemasons. Illuminati members took a vow of secrecy and pledged obedience to their superiors. Members were divided into three main classes, each with several degrees, and many Illuminati chapters drew membership from existing Masonic lodges.
The goals of the Illuminati were to eliminate superstition, prejudice and the domination of government, philosophy and science by the Roman Catholic Church, to reduce oppressive state abuses of power, and to support the education of women and encourage their treatment as intellectual equals. Weishaupt’s original plan was for the Order to be named the “Perfectibilists”. The group has also been called the Bavarian Illuminati and its ideology “Illuminism”.
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. The Order had branches in most European countries and reportedly had around 2,000 members over a span of ten years. It attracted literary men such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Johann Gottfried Herder and the reigning dukes of Gotha and Weimar.
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.