The Real Illuminati

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In 1776, an obscure Bavarian professor of philosophy created a society for like-minded individuals who upheld the values of the Enlightenment. 

Fast forward over 200 years, and that organization is now the basis for conspiracy theories and fantastic stories of global dominance. 

Learn more about the Illuminati, the real Illuminati, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily. 

The Illuminati is a legendary organization that lurks in the shadows and controls the levers of power across the globe. According to some it also has something to do with lizard people, and/or the hip hop industry. 

Believe it or not, the Illuminati isn’t a totally fabricated story. There really was a group called the Illuminati that was the basis for all of the conspiracy theories which exist today. However, it didn’t have anything to do with controlling the world economy, and the founders of it would probably be shocked to see what people think it is today.

The story of the Illuminati started in 18th century Bavaria with a scholar by the name of Adam Weishaupt. Weishaupt was from a family of Jewish converts to Christianity. He had an uncle which took an interest in his education and enrolled him in a Jesuit school.

After his graduation, he took a position at the University of Ingolstadt where he became a professor of natural and canon law. He was the only member of the faculty who was not a Jesuit priest. 

Weishaupt was a big believer in the Enlightenment. This was the philosophical movement which underpinned much of the 18th and 19th century and ushered in such things as the American Declaration of Independence, the French Revolution, and ultimately the Industrial and Scientific revolutions. 

Weishaupt was anti-monarchy, anti-church, and pro-science. Such people in the 18th century were often called Freethinkers. 

Bavaria at the time was a deeply conservative Catholic country (and by the way, Bavaria wasn’t part of Germany back then because Germany as we know it today didn’t really exist until 1871, but that is another episode.) At the university, Weishaupt was constantly butting heads with the clerical faculty which preventing him from bringing in modern ideas into the classroom.

As a background to all of this, secret societies such as Freemasonry were also becoming very popular in Europe at the time, and they were much more open to freethinkers such as Weishaupt. However, Weishaupt found Freemasonry to be expensive and not totally in line with his beliefs. 

So, he did what any modern 18th-century freethinking gentleman would do: he started his own secret society. 

The original name for the group was the Bund der Perfektibilisten, or Covenant of Perfectibility, but that name really doesn’t quite strike fear into people.  The organization was founded on May 1, 1776, with Weishaupt and several of his students. 

Everyone in the organization had classical names they called themselves. Weishaupt was called Spartacus. Other early members were called Ajax, Agathon, Tiberius, and Erasmus. 

The society had three levels: novices, minervals, and illuminated minervals. The word “minerval” came from the Roman goddess of wisdom, Minerva. The Owl of Minerva was also the symbol of the group. 

In April 1778 they rebranded to become the Illuminatenorden, or Order of Illuminati, which you have to admit, just from a marketing standpoint, works way better than the Covenant of Perfectibility.

Over the next few years, the order expanded quite rapidly. By 1782 they had about 600 members, and by 1784 it was estimated that there were between 2,000 to 3,000 Illuminati. 

Most of the members were from the upper rungs of Bavarian society. They were noblemen, lawyers, teachers, doctors, and politicians. The notable German writer Goethe was also a member. 

The order also became more complex. The three levels were expanded so there were 13 degrees of initiation with 3 classes: illuminatus minor, illuminatus dirigens, and the top level of king.

One member, Baron Adolph von Knigge (who’s name I am purposely mispronouncing) was a very influential member of the order and was responsible for much of its growth. 

The Barron had deep ties in Freemasonry and used those connections to recruit for the Illuminati. In fact, they tried to get the Illuminati recognized as one of the Masonic Rites. 

However, he soon began battling Weishaupt about the aims and procedures of the order, and he eventually quit, which caused a massive rift in the organization. Weishaupt was deeply anti-clerical and Knigge was not, and didn’t want that to be the defining characteristic of the order, lest it prevent them from expanding and gaining new members. 

Knigge was eventually pushed out, and they lost the person who was most responsible for their growth.

However, by the time that happened the writing was on the wall. The supposedly secret order had become known to many people in the kingdom. This included both the Duke of Bavaria and a competing Freemasonry group called the Rosicrucians, who were pro-monarchy and pro-church. 

One former member, Joseph Utzschneider, wrote a letter to the Grand Duchess of Bavaria detailing all of the secrets of the order and mixed in some lies as well. He said that the Illuminati was working with Austria to overthrow Bavaria and was committed to atheism.

This led to a series of edicts by the Duke of Bavaria to end the order. In 1784 he issued an order which prohibited any group which wasn’t approved by the state. The Illuminati didn’t think this applied to them, so in 1785 the Duke issued another order which explicitly banned the Order of the Illuminati. Then in 1787, just for good measure, another edict was issued which confirmed the order was in fact banned and the penalty for anyone who was found being a member was death. 

So, from beginning to end, the Order of the Illuminati didn’t even last a decade. 

So where did this modern notion that the Illuminati controlled the world come from? 

The end of the 18th century was a time of great turmoil in Europe. One of, if not the biggest event, was the French Revolution. Many of the ideas espoused during the French Revolution were Enlightenment ideas which could have come straight from the Bavarian Illuminati. 

Conservative, monarchists in Europe looked at the French Revolution and saw in it the Illuminati and began spreading the tale that the Illuminati never died, but in fact, they were responsible for the French Revolution. 

At the very end of the 18th century, several books were written which made the claim that the Illuminati were behind everything. Augustin Barruel’s book Memoirs Illustrating the History of Jacobinism and John Robison’s Proofs of a Conspiracy were the first books which linked the Illuminati to conspiracy theories. In 1802 Proofs of the Real Existence, and Dangerous Tendency, Of Illuminism by Reverend Seth Payson was published which furthered the argument.

Calling someone a member of the Illuminati was the late 18th or early 19th century equivalent of calling someone a communist before there were communists. The association wasn’t with a grand global conspiracy as it is today. 

Many Freemasons also spread the Illuminati myth because of the previous close ties with Freemasonry, and the concern that the Illuminati might still have adherents within Freemasonry. 

In the election of 1800 in the United States, one of the charges leveled at presidential candidate Thomas Jefferson was that he was one of the Illuminati. 

Over time, as the ideas of the original Illuminati became less controversial, and the popularity of secret societies like Freemasonry subsided, the Illuminati were mostly forgotten.

However, in the 20th century, they made a comeback. 

During the hippie revolution in the 60s, a movement called Discordism started. It began with a book known as the “Principia Discordia”, and it was an odd combination of a fake religion a general anti-authority movement, and an excuse to pull pranks.

Writer Robert Anton Wilson was writing for Playboy Magazine and he began writing letters to the editor to Playboy and then answering those same letters, talking about the Illuminati. 

In the 70s, he co-wrote a trilogy of books called Illuminatus! which was advertised as “a fairy tale for paranoids”. 

The book, which is fiction, ties in a bunch of conspiracy theories including the Kennedy Assassination, the Eye of Providence on the back of the US $1 bill, and tied it all to the Bavarian Illuminati. 

The book was a best-seller, was adapted for the stage, and in 1975 a popular card game was introduced called Illuminati. 

From here, the idea of the Illuminati got into the popular consciousness. It was a plot device in books like Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons as it was in the 2001 movie Tomb Raider. Rappers like Jay Z began making the triangle sign with his hands, which has many fans believing that he, Beyonce, and Kanye West are members of the Illuminati.

Many people didn’t get the memo that the whole Illuminati revival thing was fake. According to a 2103 Public Policy Polling survey, 28% of Americans believe there is an actual Illuminati. 

Global dominance and having a hand in every modern historical event for over 200 years is pretty amazing for a group that couldn’t go 10 years without splitting apart and having its members spill all its secrets. 


Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is James Mackala. 

The associate producer is Thor Thomsen.

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