The Secret Society of the Illuminati

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Real History of Secret Societies

By Richard Spence Ph.D., University of Idaho

Along with such names as Templars, Cathars, or Freemasons, the Illuminati has long been an established secret society. It is one of the most widely known orders in popular culture with its signs in such everyday issues as Superbowl ads and Taco Bell commercials. With the purpose of destroying all religions, including Christianity, it was founded in Germany in the 18th century.

A symbol of a black dot within a black circle.
A symbol of the Illuminati was a dot within a circle, representing the all-seeing eye of the unknown superior to which the order answered. (Image: Melian/Public domain)

The Birth of the Illuminati

The Illuminati Order was formed by a group of five men led by a 28-year-old professor of canon law, Adam Weishaupt, on May 1, 1776. At first, they named it the Order of Perfectibilists but soon changed it to the Order of the Illuminati, which means the order of the enlightened. So, what were they pursuing in establishing this secret order?

Portrait of Adam Weishaupt.
Adam Weishaupt was the founder of the Illuminati Order. (Image: Friedrich Rossmassler/Public domain)

The Illuminati Order was represented by a symbol of the ancient goddess of wisdom, Athena, or the Owl of Minerva. Another emblem was a dot within a circle that symbolized the all-seeing eye. However, the all-seeing eye did not belong to God, but to a mysterious unknown superior that the order revered. The day of the inauguration was also symbolic. It was an ancient festival of fertility. Also, the night before was Walpurgis Night, a night related to witchcraft and evil spirits.

The Illuminati followed a supreme goal of freeing men and giving them a happy life. But it had some conditions to fulfill. First, people had to change and become good. Weishaupt’s vision was to create a new world order through a universal republic brought about by a world revolution. This revolution would abolish all religions, including Christianity. Under this new world order, all governments would be obliterated, and all social, religious, and moral constraints would be removed. Human beings would be freed of all religious superstition, all living in a world of absolute equality and social fraternity with the masses embracing no religion but atheism. The economy would operate under a ‘communism of goods’ structure ruled by the compassionate, enlightened elite. According to Weishaupt, these superiors were flawless, and no one was allowed to doubt them.

The Illuminati emerged in the context of 18th-century enlightenment, and therefore it is safe to assume it was a product of this zeitgeist. Reason and science were given utmost significance in the era, while mysticism and the occult were also flourishing at the same time. The French philosophers like Diderot, Rousseau, and Voltaire were prominent. At the same time, illusionists like Alessandro Cagliostro, Friedrich Anton Mesmer, and the Count of Saint-Germain were also emerging and thriving.

This is a transcript from the video series The Real History of Secret Societies. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Illuminati’s Lofty Goal

The Symbol of Illuminati, the ancient goddess of wisdom, Athena, or the Owl of Minerva.
The Owl of Minerva perched on a book was an emblem used by the Bavarian Illuminati in their “Minerval” degree.(Image: Unknown author/Public domain)

Weishaupt’s utopia was not the first of its kind to be envisioned. Even the name of the order, Illuminati, was not a new term. It had been used for many other concepts and entities like baptized Christians or members of any cults in the classical age.

Weishaupt’s notion of earthly heaven, or “immanentizing of the eschaton,” was also not a novel one. It had been used by a Persian prophet in the 5th century. Mazdak had also envisioned the same socialist ideas and equality. The same concept of utopia is seen in some Jewish and Christian beliefs with the ultimate ruling of the Messiah and Christ when he returns. Weishaupt’s earthly paradise would be ruled by humans, not prophets, although those humans would be illuminated elites. The only difference that Weishaupt’s new system had with these ancient thoughts was its secrecy. Instead of open proselytizing, he believed in the concealment of the order in other names and occupations. He thought that the order should never be revealed to the public. 

Considered by many as an instrument serving a more significant cause, this order apparently never achieved their perfectionist visions. The Bavarian Illuminati hardly lasted a decade. Nevertheless, they did not face any prosecution or formal disbandment. After all, a concealed society with no outward appearance could not be disrupted. Weishaupt himself lived to the ripe age of 82 and continued to work toward his dream through writing and conspiracy. Like other secret societies, it is fair to assume that the Illuminati still continues to live under different names.

Learn more about Adam Weishaupt.

The Illuminati Become Public

However, at some point, it was exposed. But this exposure proved to be beneficial to the order and brought publicity to it. Some people believe that it was exposed by Weishaupt himself to make it known to the public. This way, more people would be attracted to it. Karl Theodor of Bavaria, forced by the church, banned the order in 1784, 1785, 1787, and 1790. However, the Illuminati continued to exist outside Bavaria. Weishaupt fled to Gotha, under the protection of Xaver von Zwak, the prince who belonged to the Illuminati. While in exile, he continued to write several books on Illuminism.

Learn more about secret societies—the underworld of history.

Common Questions About the Secret Society of the Illuminati

Q: What are the Illuminati symbols?

The Illuminati symbols include a symbol of the ancient goddess of wisdom, Athena, or the Owl of Minerva. Another emblem is a dot within a circle that symbolized the all-seeing eye.

Q: What did the Illuminati promise?

The Illuminati promised a world of freedom and happiness. Men and women would be freed of all the moral and religious constraints of the society to live happily and equally.

Q: Who founded the Illuminati?

The Illuminati was founded by Adam Weishaupt in the 18th century. He was a professor of canon law at Ingolstadt University.

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