Who are the Illuminati?

Some believe that the Illuminati, a society founded during the Age of Enlightenment in the late eighteenth century, has been complicit in every major world event since its inception. But what is the Illuminati? A formidable global cabal operating in the shadows, or one of the world’s greatest myths?

13 November 2023

For two hundred and fifty years, the enigmatic group known as the Illuminati has long been a source of intrigue and speculation. From the plural of the Latin ‘illuminatus’, the Illuminati, meaning ‘revealed’ or ‘enlightened’, was founded in Ingolstadt in the German state of Bavaria on May 1st 1776 by Adam Weishaupt, a former Jesuit and professor of Canon Law.

Who are the Illuminati? They began as a small secret society with aims to counter religious influence on public life, promote secularism, and combat the perceived oppressive practices of monarchies.

By the 1780s, after increasing scrutiny and suspicion, the Bavarian government disbanded the society. However, the dissolution of the official group gave birth to an even more enigmatic legend. Over time, the concept of the Illuminati transformed from a historical secret society to a supposed underground movement, allegedly responsible for orchestrating global machinations.

Today, the Illuminati is often touted as the puppet master behind a myriad of world events, with claims of influential members ranging from political leaders to entertainment moguls. While concrete evidence remains elusive, whispers of their omnipotent control over global finance, politics, and media persist.

But what are the Illuminati? Who are the alleged Illuminati members? Are they the world’s puppet masters, pulling the strings of every major government, financial institution and media organisation in the world, or are these supposed enlightened ones a figment of overactive imaginations?

Let’s take a trip back to Enlightenment-era Bavaria in an attempt to shed some illumination on this most perplexing mystery.

The Origins of The Illuminati

Adam Weishaupt, founder of the Illuminati (Credit: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Over the centuries, there have been a number of groups that have called themselves ‘enlightened.’ In the sixteenth century, the Alumbrados (Spanish for enlightened or illuminated ones) believed in achieving direct communion with God through mysticism, meditation, and spiritual exercises. The Inquisition viewed their practices with suspicion, equating some of them to heresy, and as a result, some Alumbrados were persecuted.

Around the same period – the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries – the Illuminés emerged in France, Like the Alumbrados, they emphasised mysticism and were viewed with suspicion by both the Catholic Church and secular authorities.

These groups were characterised by their spiritual and mystical inclinations, quite distinct from the later Enlightenment-inspired, secular goals of Weishaupt’s Illuminati meaning, which was more focused on rationalism, secularism, and political change.

What is the Illuminati?

Reception of an Illuminatus (Credit: Stefano Bianchetti/Corbis via Getty Images)

At its inception, the Bavarian Illuminati was a bastion for Enlightenment thinkers and intellectuals, championing ideas of reason, secularism, and liberty against the backdrop of an increasingly oppressive European landscape.

Weishaupt wanted to spread the ideals of reason and rational thought over superstition and obscurantism – the practice of purposely and deliberately preventing the full facts or details of something from becoming known, or knowingly making something vague and hard to understand.

While these ideas today may not seem so radical, Bavaria in the eighteenth century was staunchly religious, and the Illuminati resided in the shadows.

Weishaupt began by keeping his circle small, carefully recruiting from his body of students. Soon the recruitment drive expanded to other Bavarian towns including Eichstätt, Freising and Munich. The status of his members was also enlarged to include young men of wealth at the upper echelons of the social ladder. A constitution was written and because they were operating on the fringes of society, the Illuminati members were given aliases, many from classical literature including Spartacus, Ajax, Agathon, Tiberius, and Erasmus Roterodamus.

It’s believed that at the height of its reach, Illuminati membership may have extended as far as Denmark, Italy, France, Poland, Hungary and Russia, and member numbers may have run into the thousands.

However, by 1785, the order was banned by an edict of the Bavarian government. Some of the high-ranking Illuminati members were reported to have been imprisoned. According to most historians, the group disbanded and the Illuminati disappeared almost as quickly as they arrived, never to be seen or heard of again.

Or did they…?

The Illuminati: Les Miserables

Engraved portrait of John Robison (1739-1805) (Credit: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Almost immediately after the Illuminati was disbanded, conspiracy theories were rife.

Writing separately but at almost exactly the same time in around 1797, French Jesuit priest Augustin Barruel suggested that the Illuminati, along with other secret societies, were somehow responsible for the French Revolution. Scottish physicist John Robison accused the Illuminati of infiltrating the Freemasons.

Both Barruel and Robison tapped into existing fears and anxieties of their time. The rapid changes that Europe underwent during the late eighteenth century, especially with events like the French Revolution, made many receptive to the idea that hidden forces were pulling the strings behind the scenes. Their works played a foundational role in the development and persistence of Illuminati conspiracy theories which still exist today.

But it still doesn’t answer the age-old question, who are the Illuminati?

The Illuminati & The Freemasons

Colourised detail of a US $1 bill (Credit: Apic via Getty Images)

The association between the Illuminati and the Freemasons is one of the most debated aspects of their lore. Indeed asking what are the Illuminati is similar in many ways to asking what are the Freemasons. Both were often surrounded by suspicion and myth, and while they shared some similar principles and occasionally had overlapping membership, they were distinct entities. Before they were banned, Weishaupt’s Illuminati sought to recruit members from Masonic lodges, leading to widespread misconceptions about their interconnectedness.

The symbols associated with the Illuminati, like the ubiquitous all-seeing eye, known as the Eye of Providence which appears on the US one-dollar bill, have often been intertwined with Masonic symbolism, causing further confusion. Such symbolism, according to some, is said to reflect the group’s emphasis on enlightenment, oversight, and knowledge. Others have suggested it is an Orwellian Big Brother eye, a symbol of the Illuminati’s control and surveillance of the world.

It’s worth noting that the pyramid and the eye, as they appear on the dollar bill, were adopted in 1782 as part of the Great Seal of the United States, and their intended meanings were related to the early founding of the USA, not explicitly to Freemasonry or the Illuminati.

The Modern Day Illuminati

A close up of the definition of the word: Illuminati in an English dictionary. (Credit: ABEMOS via Getty Images)

What are the Illuminati today? Stories of the enlightened ones never disappeared entirely, rather they waxed and waned for the better part of two centuries. There were always rumours and whispers but nothing substantive until Robert Shea and Anton Wilson wrote The Illuminatus Trilogy in the mid-1970s.

The books were seen as a satirical, postmodern, science fiction-infused exploration of conspiracy theories, particularly those surrounding the Illuminati. They blended highbrow philosophical concepts with lowbrow humour and B-movie horror tropes, but they were successful in bringing about a renewed interest in this covert clique, especially about who the Illuminati members might be and their overarching goals. Dan Brown’s fictional Angels & Demons, published in 2000, further cemented the Illuminati’s position as a pop culture staple.

While the historical Illuminati – the Bavarian secret society founded by Adam Weishaupt – has long since disbanded, the myth of the Illuminati persists in modern popular culture and conspiracy theories. Over time, the alleged activities and influence of this mythical modern Illuminati have grown to encompass a wide range of claims, some of the most prominent of which are below.

Global Control

One of the most pervasive beliefs is that the Illuminati is a shadowy syndicate that controls or seeks to control global affairs. They’re said to manipulate events to achieve a New World Order where they would have unchallenged global dominance.

Influence Over World Leaders

It’s often alleged that a number of world leaders, both in politics and royalty, are either Illuminati members or are under their control.

Media & Entertainment Control

The Illuminati is frequently said to control media corporations and entertainment industries. Globally famous pop stars, actors, athletes and other celebrities including the media moguls themselves are sometimes labelled as members or puppets of the Illuminati, meaning they may use their influence to promote the group’s agenda.

Economic Control

Conspiracy theories often assert that the Illuminati controls central banks and global financial institutions – often suggesting the heads of these companies and organisations are somehow involved – using them as tools to manipulate economies and further their control.

Population Control

Some contend that the Illuminati has plans to decrease the global population through orchestrated events or calamities, arguing that a smaller population would be easier to control.

World Events

From political coups to financial crises and even to public health, the Illuminati is often implicated as being behind major world events, orchestrating them for various nefarious purposes.


In the digital age, some theories posit that the Illuminati has access to advanced technology, which they use for surveillance and control, and even that they suppress technological advancements that would benefit humanity.

Over the centuries, these Illuminati theories have evolved and adapted to fit different cultural and societal fears, and they’re often rooted in speculation, conjecture, and misinformation.

The Illuminati: Covert Consortium or Cultural Construct?

Eye of Providence on the one-dollar bill (Credit: Moussa81 via Getty Images)

In the annals of history, few groups have captivated the collective imagination as profoundly as the Illuminati. But what is the Illuminati? Originating in the eighteenth century as a Bavarian secret society with Enlightenment ideals, its legacy has been transformed by myth, speculation, and popular culture into tales of world domination and covert influence.

While the allure of hidden machinations and shadowy elite networks remains a tantalising topic for many, it’s essential to differentiate between the historical truths of a disbanded group and the conspiracies of today. In a world where fact and fiction intertwine, the legend of the Illuminati serves as a potent reminder of the power of stories, both real and imagined.


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