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
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,
Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed. Illuminati
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
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.
Barruel, Augustin. Memoirs Illustrating the History of Jacobinism.
4 vols., London, 1797.
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.
Hackethorn, Charles William. The Secret Societies of All Ages
and Countries. 2 vols. Reprint, New Hyde Park, N.Y. University
Books, 1965.
Holmes, Donald. The Illuminati Conspiracy. Los Angeles Falcon
Press, 1987.
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,
Wilson, Robert Anton. Cosmic Trigger Final Secret of the Illuminati.
Berkeley, Calif. AndOr Press, 1977.
———. The Illuminati Papers. Berkeley, Calif. AndOr Press,
———. Illuminatus! 3 vols. New York Dell, 1975.
———. Masks of the Illuminati. New York Timescape, 1981.