There are more conspiracy theories regarding the Illuminati than almost any other secret organisation. They originally began as a splinter group within the Freemasons but then came to dominate every aspect of the many lodges in which they had a presence. They are a prime focus for conspiracy theorists and have been blamed for economic disasters, revolutions and wars. In fact, it seems that although the Illuminati do not currently exist, the fascination with them remains, with many of their symbols still being seen today. What is more, when they were a powerful force, it seems that they were also wholly preoccupied with improving society. The Illuminati can be called the children of the Enlightenment.
The Age of Enlightenment (also known as the Age of Reason) was a European movement that took hold in the 18th century. The bloody religious battles of the 16th and 17th centuries, coupled with scientific advances, led many European intellectuals to question the structure of society, which rests upon the divine right of kings, the Church and nobles to hold the rest of the population in abject servitude.
Reason and logic were seen as superior to superstitions, and ideals such as liberty, tolerance, fraternity, equality and democracy were explored. At the heart of Enlightenment thinking was a desire to improve the lot of humankind.
In his famous book, The Social Contract (1762), Rousseau wrote, 'Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains.' Of course, Rousseau was writing both literally and symbolically. Man was chained to his class in society and was locked into an ignorant state through lack of education. It was this ignorance, borne of superstition and tradition, on which the Illuminati sought to shine a light.
Adam Weishaupt (1748 - 1830) was the founder of the Bavarian Illuminati. Born in the lovely town of Ingolstadt in the south of the German state of Bavaria, he soon proved to be a brilliant intellect. Raised upon Enlightenment writing, by the age of 27 he had been promoted to the post of Dean of Canon Law at the University of Ingolstadt.
Like many of his generation, he was enrolled in the Rite of Strict Observance followed by Freemasonry. This section of Freemasons believes in strict observance of Masonic rituals before an individual can progress within the organisation. Not possessing the friendly bonhomie of other lodges, the Strict Observance lodges stick to the letter of the law. However, as with all lodges, religion and politics could not be discussed. This made the Freemasons largely passive observers of society.
Weishaupt wanted to use the knowledge and rituals of Freemasonry to take an active role in freeing society from the domination of the church and a social hierarchy based on bloodlines. He wanted to emancipate humanity. To achieve this, on the 1st of May 1776, he founded the Order of the Illuminati.
The brilliance of Weishaupt's idea was not to make the Illuminati a rival organisation to the Freemasons but to actually use his powerful allies to take over lodges throughout Europe. He recruited grand masters into his new organisation, who would then recruit from their own lodges. Soon lodges throughout Europe were dominated by the Illuminati, though not all masons could join. Those who held firm beliefs would be offended by the anti-Christian stance of the new secret society.
The aims of the organisation were manifold. They wanted to rid European society of Christianity and nationalism. These were to be replace wit ha pan-European republic. Human rights would be enshrined in law and each individual would be able to rise within society based on his own merit - meritocracy as an explicit form of social progress rather than stifling aristocracy that prevailed at the time. Jesus was portrayed as the original grand master of the Illuminati, as he sought to free humanity from the yoke of empire.
To maintain secrecy, the Illuminati gave themselves pseudonyms from antiquity and never referred to each other by title. Countries and cities were renamed, with many terms encrypted, including days and months. Years were altered, with 630CE now seen as year 1 (the year chosen, seemingly randomly, to confused all who tried to read secret documents). Secret signs and handshakes such as those employed by the Masons, but subtly different, were used for recognition.
In pursuance of their aims, the Illuminati began ridiculing the church and nobility throughout Europe. Many funds were diverted into Illuminati coffers, and this money was used for publishing leaflets and pamphlets attacking the church. University professors, government administrators and even members of the clergy were actively involved in spreading Illuminati propaganda. Articles ridiculing leading public figures and exposing their crimes were widely distributed.
The organisation had a strong spiritual side. By undergoing a complex series of rituals and insights, an individual could clear out the clutter from their mind; repudiate preconceptions, prejudices and fears; and move into an exalted, transcendental spiritual state. Unique among the many societies of the time, women too were welcome into its ranks. It was while moving through these states towards spiritual enlightenment that the Illuminati taught symbolism, and these symbols are still in use today.
The thinking utilised by the Illuminati was remarkably like psychotherapy today. As the adherent moved through a process of self-enquiry, they were to examine their past of traumas and formative experiences that placed preconceptions and limitations in their mind. By clearing out these negative blockages, they could move towards a stage of 'gnosis' or spiritual oneness with the heavens.
The Illuminati motto was 'Let there be light, and there shall be light.' So through self-awareness an individual could become one with the divine forces of the universe, just as by examining society and realising social problems rooted in the past, these could also be eliminated, leading to a Utopian society.
The Illuminati were not a dark secret society with an agenda of fear and terror, but rather the opposite. To attain enlightenment, a series of steps had to be followed and completed: first the four steps of the Nursery Degrees: Preparation, Novice, Minerval and Lesser Illuminatus. After this came the three stages of Symbolic Masonry Degree followed by the three stages of the Scotch Masonry Degree. These were followed by the two stages of the Lesser Mysteries Degrees, culminating into the two highest degrees, Magus and Rex.
The Minerval degree was perhaps the most important, as this was when members signed an oath of obligation to the order, committing them to purifying the intellect. Once they had passed this level, the inductee could wear the all-seeing eye, or 'Eye of Providence' - the eye on top of the pyramid, beloved by many conspiracy theorists.
Within the space of a few decades, the Illuminati could boast some 2,500 members, including luminaries such as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 - 1791). However, the success led to complaints and resentment, with several university professors in Munich being arrested. Admitting they were members of the order, they confessed that they did not follow Christianity but they did believe that suicide was not a sin.
Masons realised that their lodges had, in many instances, been hijacked by the agnostic organisation and sought to expel the rival members. In Bavaria, all secret societies were banned in a series of laws introduced in 1785, and the movement was disbanded. Or was it?
Many Illuminati remained in positions of power, with Weishaupt becoming a professor of philosopy at the University of Göttingen. He seemed to lead a low-key life, but some theories say the movement continued its work as an underground organisation. Indeed, many leading lights of the French Revolution were supposed to hail from this sacred order. At first they sought to put Illuminati ideals into place, but the violent excesses of the Terror soon discredited the movement and perhaps signalled its death.
If the movement did go underground and its members are still engaged in trying to create a worldwide spiritual and physical Uptopia, they're not doing a very good job of it.