A term first used in the fifteenth century by enthusiasts in the occult arts, signifying those who claimed to possess light directly communicated from a higher source or because of abundant human wisdom. The term was used in Spain about the end of the fifteenth century, but probably originated from an Italian Gnostic source. All kinds of people, many of them charlatans, claimed to belong to the Illuminati. In Spain those who assumed the label had to face the rigor of the Inquisition, and many of them moved to France as refugees in the early seventeenth century.
Here and there small bodies of those called Illuminati— sometimes known as Rosicrucians —rose into publicity for a short period. It was through Adam Weishaupt (1748-1830), professor of law at Ingolstadt, that the movement first became identified with republicanism. Weishaupt founded the order of the Illuminati in Bavaria in 1776. It soon secured a stronghold throughout Germany. Its critics suggested that its founder's objective was merely to convert his followers into blind instruments of his will.
Weishaupt built a strong organization modeled on the Jesuits'. The Illuminati was an occult organization and had a series of classes and grades, similar to that within Freemasonry. It offered promise of the communication of deep occult secrets in the higher ranks. Only a few of the members knew Weishaupt personally as the society spread throughout Germany. He was able to enlist a number of young men of wealth and position, and within four or five years the members even began to have a hand in the affairs of the state. Not a few of the German princes found it to their interest to have dealings with the fraternity.
Weishaupt blended philanthropy and mysticism. He was only 28 when he founded the sect in 1776, and it began to prosper when a certain Baron Adolph von Knigge (1752-1796) joined him in 1780. A gifted person of strong imagination, von Knigge had been a master of most of the secret societies of his day, including the Freemasons. He was also an expert occultist, and the supernatural held a strong attraction for him. He and Weishaupt rapidly spread the gospel of the revolution throughout Germany. They grew fearful, however, that if the authorities discovered the existence of such a society as theirs they would take steps to suppress it. With this in mind they conceived the idea of grafting Illuminism onto Freemasonry, which they thought would protect it and help it spread more widely and rapidly.
The Freemasons were not long in discovering the true nature of those who had just joined their organization. A chief council was held to thoroughly examine the beliefs held by the Illuminati, and a conference of Masons was held in 1782. Knigge and Weishaupt attended and endeavored to capture the whole organization of Freemasonry, but a misunderstanding grew up between the leaders of Illuminism. Knigge withdrew from the society, and two years later some who discovered Weishaupt's democratic aims denounced it to the Bavarian government, which quickly moved to suppress it. The Illuminati were all but destroyed in 1785 and Weishaupt fled. However, illuminist ideas spread to occultists in France and helped in building support for the French Revolution.
The title Illuminati was later given to the French Martinists, followers of the French mystic Louis Claude de St. Martin (1743-1803), known as "le philosophe inconno."
A famous member of the Order of Illuminati was Count Alessandrodi Cagliostro. He was initiated in 1781 at Frankfurt, where the Illuminati used the name Grand Masters of the Templars, and was said to have received money and instructions from Weishaupt to influence French Masonry. Cagliostro later became associated with the Martinist order, which had been founded in 1754. Some believe that the Illuminati maintained a complex network of secret orders in the later seventeenth century, others that a variety of different independent groups used the name. A revived Order of Illuminati was founded in 1880 by Leopold Engel at Dresden, Germany. Notable names connected with this revival include Rudolph Steiner and Franz Hartmann.
Through the twentieth century, the idea of an Illuminati conspiracy became one of the more popular conspiracy myths feeding off waves of paranoia in the Western public. In the late twentieth century, popular writer Robert Anton Wilson played with the Illuminati theme in a series of books designed to shake the reader out of conventional modes of thought.
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Daraul, Arbon. Secret Societies, Yesterday and Today. London: Fernhill Housen, 1961. Reprinted as A History of Secret Societies. New York: Citadel, 1961.
Fagan, Myron. A Brief History of the Illuminati. Lansing, Ill.: H.B.C., 1978. Gould, R. F. History of Freemasonry. 5 vols. Rev. ed. London: Caxton, 1931.
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Waite, Arthur E. A New Encyclopaedia of Freemasonry. 2 vols. London: Rider, 1921. Reprint, New Hyde Park, N.Y.: University Books, 1970.
Wilgus, Neal. The Illuminoids. New York: New American Library, 1989.
Wilson, Robert Anton. Cosmic Trigger: Final Secret of the Illuminati. Berkeley, Calif.: And/Or Press, 1977.
——. The Illuminati Papers. Berkeley, Calif.: And/Or Press, 1980.
——. Illuminatus! 3 vols. New York: Dell, 1975.
——. Masks of the Illuminati. New York: Timescape, 1981.