In a historical sense, the term “Illuminati” refers to the Bavarian Illuminati, a association that operated for less than a decade, from 1776 to 1785. This organization was founded by Adam Weishaupt, a German law professor who believed strongly in Enlightenment ideals, and his lluminatenorden sought to market those ideals among elites. Weishaupt wanted to teach Illuminati members in reason, philanthropy, and other secular values in order that they might influence political decisions once they came to power.
Illuminati, designation in use from the 15th century, assumed by or applied to varied groups of persons who claimed to be unusually enlightened. The word is that the plural of the Latin illuminatus (“revealed” or “enlightened”).
“It was pretty ambitious for six or nine guys, but they really wanted to take over the world,” says Chris Hodapp, the co-author of Conspiracy Theories and Secret Societies for Dummies with Alice VonKannon.
The Illuminati’s goals — and reputation — often exceeded their means, Hodapp notes. In its youth , the group was just a couple of individuals . And even at its largest, it only consisted of somewhere between 650 and a couple of ,500 members. The group grew thereto size by becoming a kind of cell within other groups — Illuminati members joined Freemason lodges to recruit members for his or her own competing secret society.
There were two sides to the historical Illuminati: their odd rituals and their ideals.
The Illuminati did plenty of unusual things. They used symbols (like the owl), adopted pseudonyms to avoid identification, and had complicated hierarchies like Novice, Minerval, and Illuminated Minerval that divided the ranks. In the beginning, Hodapp says, Illuminati members didn’t trust anyone over 30, because they were too set in their ways. Other reports of rituals are harder to verify , but we all know that members were very paranoid and used spy-like protocol to stay one another’s identities secret.
But while they were following these bizarre rituals, they also promoted a worldview that reflected Enlightenment ideals like rational thought and self-rule. Anti-clerical and anti-royal, the Illuminati were closer to revolutionaries than world rulers, since they sought to infiltrate and upset powerful institutions just like the monarchy.
Historians tend to think the Illuminati were only mildly successful — at the best — in becoming influential. (Though, of course, there also are those that believe the Illuminati successfully took over the planet — and still control it today. If an all-powerful group does dominate the planet , we probably wouldn’t realize it. Δ.)
It’s also difficult to untangle the success of the Illuminati from that of the Freemasons, which they infiltrated and commingled with. It’s even as tough to inform what influence the Illuminati actually had as against the influence people think that they had .
We do know the Illuminati had some influential members — along side many dukes and other leaders who were powerful but are forgotten today, some sources think writer Johann Goethe was a member of the group (though other sources dispute the claim). In a way, Illuminati influence depends on what you think about them. If you think their revolutionary ideals spread to other groups, like the French Revolution’s Jacobins, then they were successful. If you think that those ideas would have prospered regardless, then they were mainly a historical curiosity.
The Illuminati never completely disappeared from popular culture — it had been always burbling within the background. But within the mid-1970s, the Illuminati made a marked comeback because of a literary trilogy that gave the group the simultaneously spooky and laughable image it holds today.
The Illuminatus Trilogy, by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson, depicted the Illuminati with ironic detachment. This trilogy became a countercultural touchstone, and its intermingling of real research — Weishaupt, the founding father of the important Illuminati, may be a character — with fantasy helped put the Illuminati back on the radar.
“It was an excellent example of the post-’60s ways of ironizing elite sorts of power,” Mark Fenster says. “That ironic vision of conspiracy theory is extremely cosmopolitan . You can be both a significant conspiracy theorist and joke about it.”
From there, the Illuminati became a periodic staple of both popular culture — as in Dan Brown’s massively popular novel Angels and Demons — and various subcultures, where the group is often intermingled with Satanism, alien myths, and other ideas that might are totally foreign to the important Bavarian Illuminati.
Uscinski clarifies that the majority Americans today don’t actually believe the Illuminati. In a survey of conspiracy theories he conducted in 2012, he says zero people claimed that groups like Freemasons or Illuminati were controlling politics. Even so, the Illuminati seem to continue our collective consciousness, serving because the butt of jokes and therefore the source of lizard people rumors .