The illuminati. Some say it’s a mysterious organization of immensely wealthy people who secretly run the world. They are said to have orchestrated every major global event for the last 150 years. Part of the conspiracy is that no one knows they exist, even though everyone has heard about them. Also, they might all be lizards. But that depends on whether you believe David Icke.
There are all kinds of weird and wonderful theories about the shadowy syndicate. But how much of it is true? Well, the illuminati were a real society. Throughout its history, Europe has seen several organizations with that name. Each one claimed to be particularly enlightened in its own way. But none of them look anything like the mythical group that conspiracy theorists seem to love to obsess over. Here are ten things they’ve got drastically wrong about the illuminati.
10 The Illuminati is a Secret Underground Organisation
Ask your average conspiracy theorist and they will tell you that the illuminati are a group of secretive leaders pulling the strings of global events. But the early illuminati didn’t skulk in the shadows. The first people to call themselves illuminati, also known as alumbrados, were proud to promote their alternative spiritual views.
The movement was born in 15th century Spain, inspired by Christian gnosticism and Egyptian Hermeticism. Followers believed that they would be able to communicate with the Holy Spirit if they purified their souls. The theory said that if the soul reached a certain level of perfection, they would be rewarded with some glimpse of God. They could also stop taking part in religious work and could sin without their souls becoming tainted. This meant that enlightened alumbrados were allowed to indulge in wild sex and other immoral acts. No wonder their ideas caught on so fast.
9 The Illuminati are Immensely Powerful
The illuminati are often thought of as all-powerful and oppressive. But early alumbrados were often persecuted for their religious ideas. Their unorthodox gospel soon caught the attention of the Spanish Inquisition. Inquisitors issued three edicts against the illuminati, in 1568, 1574, and 1623. Followers faced the constant threat of violent attacks. In 1529, a group of alumbrados was flogged and thrown in prison for their alternative beliefs.
In 17th century Seville, the priest and alumbrado Fernando Méndez became a notable enemy of the Spanish Inquisition. The maverick holy man was said to hold wild sermons, behaving “as though he were already a saint in heaven.” While delivering mass, he would often fall into a trance and roar at his congregation. After services, he would sometimes return to a coterie of holy women who would take off their clothes and dance about naked – delirious on the love of God. At other times, the radical priest would insist that women lifted their skirts and exposed themselves to him as penance for their sins.
Méndez died before the Spanish Inquisition could get their hands on him. But not all of the alumbrados were lucky enough to escape the clutches of the Vatican.
8 Illuminati Members are all Vastly Wealthy and Part of the Global Elite
Contrary to popular belief, the illuminati were not all rich and powerful. There were plenty who came from modest backgrounds. One of the earliest was María de Santo Domingo, a peasant girl from south of Salamanca. Maria signed up to the Dominican order when she was a teenager.
Before long, she became known as a religious mystic who could speak directly to Jesus and the Virgin Mary. Maria earned the name La Beata de Piedrahita – the holy woman of Piedrahita. Among her followers were reputable leaders, including King Ferdinand II who invited her to his court.
She told her followers that she could speak to Jesus, that she was Jesus, and that she was married to him, all at once. Sometimes she would fall into a trance for hours on end. She would stretch her arms and legs, claiming she was dissolving in the arms of Christ.
This made her a target of the Spanish Inquisition. Maria was accused of heresy and secretly worshipping the devil. The Inquisition held a series of trials but, because of her connections to royalty, they took no action. She was cleared in 1510 and died a year later.
7 The Illuminati are Based Across the World
Conspiracy theorists often claim that the illuminati are a global evil spread out across the globe. They say you can find their pyramid insignia everywhere from the world of celebrity to the US dollar bill.
In reality, the illuminati only existed in certain parts of Western and Central Europe. The most famous movement started in the late 18th century in the German state of Bavaria. On May Day 1776, Professor Adam Weishaupt started a secret underground group at the University of Ingolstadt. He called them the Perfectibilists.
Weishaupt and his colleagues were fed up with the control that religion had over their lives. Instead, they wanted to create a society that was built around reason and logic. It was an idea that was born out of the Enlightenment period. In Europe during the 18th century, people started to turn away from the teachings of the church and moved towards rational thought. One of the most widely held beliefs of the period was that the church and that state should be separated. This idea was particularly popular among the Bavarian illuminati. Even their name, ‘illuminati’, is the plural of ‘illuminatus’ – the Latin word for enlightened.
The beliefs of the Bavarian illuminati were the stark opposite of those of the Spanish illuminati. The only thing they both had in common was their name – a sign that both groups believed that they were particularly enlightened.
6 The Illuminati is Full of Politicians and . . . Aliens
Type the name of any major celebrity and the word ‘illuminati’ into Google and you’ll probably find a slew of conspiracy theorists claiming they’re part of some shady cartel. The truth is there were no A-listers in the illuminati.
The movement did have a handful of well-known members. The writer Adolph Freiherr Knigge worked his way up to a senior post. Knigge is probably best known for his 1788 book Über den Umgang mit Menschen, a handy guide for social interactions. To this day, the name Knigge is synonymous with good manners.
Other prominent figures are said to have joined the Bavarian group. These include philosopher Friedrich Jacobi, poet Friedrich Leopold, and astronomer Johann Bode, who gave the planet Uranus its name.
The myth of celebrities in the illuminati was probably born in Playboy magazine. During the counter-cultural haze of the 1960s, editors Robert Anton Wilson and Kerry Thornley started sending fake letters into the magazine. They wanted to shake things up in their tongue-in-cheek way. So they wrote in describing a secret cult – the illuminati – that they said controlled the world. After that, they wrote even more fake letters, disagreeing with the letters they had already published. The whole thing was one big hoax orchestrated by the writers.
Wilson even penned a book with writer Robert Shea called The Illuminatus! Trilogy. Wilson and Shea joked that the illuminati was full of famous faces, along with a crew of aliens that came to Earth from Mars. The pair told their readers that the society had organized the killing of John F. Kennedy and that the pyramid on the dollar bill was proof of their existence.
Somewhere in the midst of all that, the joke got lost. People started to believe in Wilson’s ridiculous hoax. What started as a prank in the back pages of Playboy magazine ended up, decades later, becoming one of the most elaborate conspiracy theories in the world.
5 The Illuminati Contains a Vast Network of Members
Another fallacy. The illuminati were never a huge organization. When it began in 1776, it was mostly made up of Weishaupt and his students. Over time, the group stretched out to include members from other German cities. At its height, the society contained men from as far as France, Denmark, Italy, and Poland. But even then, it had 2,000 members at most. Knigge helped to expand the group into several Masonic lodges. Unlike the Spanish alumbrados, the Bavarian illuminati were almost all wealthy men with a good education.
Each member had a code name so that they could write to each other in secret. These names were often connected to ancient Greek and Rome. So Weishaupt became known as Spartacus, whereas Knigge took the name Philo. Knigge also helped set up the group’s communication lines.
4 The Illuminati Masterminded the French Revolution
In 1789, France witnessed one of the bloodiest uprisings in history. Peasants across the country fought back against what they described as the oppression of the nobility and the bourgeoisie. They stormed the Bastille, forcing King Louis XVI to concede power and abolishing feudalism once and for all.
The French Revolution sent shockwaves across Europe. Politicians were taken aback by the events in Paris. The British ruling class started to worry about the prospect of a workers’ rebellion in their country. They feared that the spirit of the revolution could make its way across the Channel and that they would be ousted from power.
So the ruling class began spreading rumors that someone else was pulling the strings. British nobility needed a scapegoat and they found one in a dying German cult. The illuminati, who by then had almost ceased to exist, were accused of orchestrating the entire thing.
Contrary to the way they were painted by British politicians, Weishaupt’s group never advocated violence. They believed that, by educating people, they could change society over time.
3 The Illuminati are Part of a Wider Jewish Conspiracy
There is a pernicious trend of people using conspiracy theories to excuse and encourage anti-Semitism. Although a lot of conspiracy theories are nothing more than harmless fun, some of the wilder ideas about the illuminati have a disgusting undercurrent of Jew-baiting.
The illuminati never had any connection to Judaism. As we’ve already seen, in its earliest form, the organization was made up of unorthodox Christians with some extravagant ideas about the soul. Later, illuminati members argued against the influence of organized religion. Adam Weishaupt had previously been a Jesuit, but he had no links to the Jewish faith.
The link between Jews and the illuminati first came about at the start of the 20th century. Around that time, a document started to circulate called the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. It suggested that, in 1897, Jewish leaders had met with Freemasons and started planning the demise of Christian civilization. The spread of liberalism and socialism, it said, were the first steps towards a Jewish New World Order.
The Protocols were originally released in Russian. But it didn’t take long for them to be translated into German, French, English, and several other languages. Sadly, they were read and believed by people all over the world. Henry Ford helped popularize the document in the US in his private newspaper Dearborn Independent.
But in 1921, an Irish journalist started to question whether the document was even real. Philip Graves pointed out that the Protocols were oddly similar to a French satirical piece of the 1860s. As it turned up, Russian officials had faked them all. But the anti-Semitic propaganda exists to this day, and there are plenty of people who have been duped into believing in them.
2 The Illuminati are Communists
The link between the illuminati and Marxism first came about in the US after the end of the Second World War. At that time, Senator Joseph McCarthy was carrying out a purge of government workers that he accused of being communists or gay. These were known as the Red and Lavender Scares.
But the real illuminati were nothing like the “card-carrying communists” dreamt up the former senator. Almost all of them were well-off members of the upper class who directly benefited from the existence of capitalism. Unlike Marx and Engels, they did not approve of violent revolution or the overthrow of class society. Weishaupt and his peers wanted to see the introduction of secular governments. They believed this would happen over time via a process of education, through reform instead of revolution.
1 The Illuminati Still Exists
Some conspiracy theorists believe the illuminati are still out there manipulating global events in an attempt to create a New World Order. This isn’t true. The illuminati came to an end in the mid-1780s. In 1785, the Bavarian government created a law banning all secret societies.
By that point, the movement was already beginning to fall apart. The relationship between Knigge and Weishaupt had become increasingly tense and, in the end, Knigge had left the society. Another former member had sent a damning letter to the Grand Duchess of Bavaria revealing hidden secrets about the group while also spreading false rumors. The law imposed by Bavarian officials was the final nail in the illuminati’s coffin.
Some members were locked up for their role in the order. Others had to flee their homes. Weishaupt found himself kicked out of his job at the university and banished from Bavaria. He spent the remainder of his life lecturing in philosophy at the University of Göttingen.