To place them in their context employing some semblance of rationality, the Bavarian Illuminati, the most renowned of all groups to adopt that appellation, were one of many manifestations of the enlightened (illuminated?) spirit sweeping Europe in the eighteenth century, which saw no higher purpose than to eradicate the centuries-old monarchical/feudal domination that had trapped mankind in the dark ages. The Illuminati were as much products of their age as shapers of it.
On the other hand…
The society’s founder, Adam Weishaupt, was a hotheaded, prodigious Ingolstadt University law professor – barely post-adolescent at twenty-six – when he joined the Freemasons in 1774 and shortly set to work blueprinting a utopian schemata to move human civilization into a universal state of nature unshackled by authoritarian strictues. While not lacking in ambition, Weishaupt also possessed enough realism to understand that he required a dedicated bevy of accomplices to pull off this caper.
With a restless mind that rejected all normative systems of belief, young Adam grew into an occultist of sorts, with an enthusiasm for Greek mystery religions. While no one is 100 percent sure what went on inside these cults – they were, after all, mysterious – Weishaupt sussed out enough to pattern his own secret society on their structure. Recruiting five members from a prestigious Masonic lodge over which he’d gained a measure of control, on May 1, 1776, (a retroactively suspicious date, if ever there was one), Weishaupt inaugurated the Order of Perfectibilists, better known as the Bavarian Illuminati.
While Weishaupt himself may have talked a good game, he wasn’t much of a “player” in the Masonic politico scene. Again, he shrewdly compensated for his own shortcomings. He executed a recruiting coup, signing up one Adolf Francis, known as Baron Knigge, who by 1780 was already one of the Continent’s leading Masons. The baron had attempted for years to unite all the European lodges into one giant, spidery entity of subterfuge. With Knigge’s talent for organization, Illuminati rolls quickly swelled to over three thousand – each name plucked from the cream of the Masonic crop – in what amounted to a bloodless coup of the European Freemasonic upper echelon.
On the Continent, Freemasonry was traditionally a refuge for radical intellectuals, politicians, and those who wanted to rub shoulders with them. The Illuminati selected the most dedicated and powerful of theses and filtered them through initiation rites more grueling and esoteric than Freemasonry’s own. The practice was designed largely to ensure allegiance to Weishaupt and the other chief executives of the order. The Illuminati, thusly, became a secret revolutionary cell whose influence far outstripped its numbers.
Alas, like so many secret organizations, it had a hard time keeping itself secret. After a few defectors spilled some of Weishaupt’s classified info in the early to mid-1780s, the Illuminati was specifically decreed to be an outlaw organization and the Bavarian heat came down hard. Weishaupt and a few other leaders fled to neighboring provinces. Or somewhere.
Adam Weishaupt’s trail appears to peter out at this point. New Age literary prankster-laureate Robert Anton Wilson has (spuriously) suggested that he escaped to America and knocked off and then impersonated our hemp smoking, avidly Masonic founding president. Maybe Washington’s idiosyncrasies were really Weishaupt’s. That speculation is as good as any, because stories about the Illuminati refuse to go away. Almost instantly upon their forced dissolution, rumors began making the rounds that Weishaupt’s subversive elitists were still up to their devious schemes. According to the classic expose Proofs of a Conspiracy, published fourteen years after the Illuminati breathed their apparent last, the Illuminati metamorphosed into the German Union and had played a role in – if not caused – the French Revolution, an uprising whose motto, “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” was explicitly Masonic.
In his wonderful, divagating history of the topic, The Illuminoids, Neil Wilgus reports that George Washington, whoever he was, read Proofs and felt that its charges deserved wider play. Though, of course, he added, American Masonic lodges engaged in none of the chicanery of their European counterparts. Thomas Jefferson, another Mason (as were most of the founding fathers) had a passing familiarity with Weishaupt’s writings. He admired them, saying that he could understand the German radical’s penchant for secrecy given the despotism that held dominion over Europe. But if Weishaupt had been in America, said the author of the Declaration of Independence, he “would not have though of any secret machinery” to propagate his freethinking ideology.
Weishaupt’s Illuminati have become the all-purpose conspiracy; the theory that explains everything and always applies. Various versions of the tale list Franklin Delano Roosevelt as an initiated Illuminatus. After all, it was under Roosevelt that the Masonic eye in the pyramid first appeared on U.S. currency. One anecdote, which likely falls into the category of “urban legend,” tells how Charles Manson was identified as a card-carrying member of the Illuminati – on the Oprah Winfrey show.
One cant help but wonder, however, whether the entire Illuminati story is fabricated. Is it possible that an “Adam Weishaupt” ever existed? His very name smacks of hoaxery – Adam, the first man; Weishaupt, which translates “wise head.” Nice moniker for the purported instigator of a world revolution.
While general consensus does seem to hold that such an individual did, at one point, stalk the Earth (though living perhaps not quite as spectacular a life as is often described), Weishaupt is a mythic character like any historical figure: JFK, John Dillinger, Hitler, Casanova, Babe Ruth. A living metaphor. For…what?
Wilgus took the most accurate approach, chronicling not the history of Illuminati but “illuminoids,” a neologism defined as “like the Illuminati.” Throughout history “enlightenment” or “illumination” has been one of humanity’s greatest obsessions. Weishaupt’s Bavarian Illuminati, though they receive the widest publicity, were a rather minor exponent of a tradition that probably dates back to the days of prehistory, when some cave shaman first freaked out his flock by sparking fire with flint and sticks. He or she quite literally saw the light. The quest for illumination can be simultaneously baleful and benign. The Force always has its Dark Side. To hear the right-wingers tell it, history has played host to a veritable army of Darth Vaders. Peering through the prism from a different angle, we can see the illuminoids as segments of humanity dissatisfied with our everyday lot on this mudball, reaching above, within, and elsewhere for a better way.
Early mystery sects of the type that inspired Weishaupt may have been among the first manifestations of organized illumination. Jewish cabalism, Christian gnosticism, and Islamic sufism followed, as did a liberal peppering of cults and secret societies from the fearsome Hashishim (assassins) and the ill-fated Knights Templar to smaller occult groups, some (as in Spain and France) actually calling themselves “Illuminati.”
Weishaupt’s organization fits snugly onto this continuum.
Since the Bavarian Illuminati’s ostensible demise, the flame has burned brilliantly. Occult groups from Aleister Crowley’s Ordo Templis Orientis to Anton LaVey’s Church of Satan occupy one end of the spectrum, feeding the paranoia of that particular strain of Christian who exhausts a reservoir’s worth of energy fretting about “Satanism.” Then who’s to say they’re so crazy? Who is Satan but Lucifer, the fallen “Angel of Light”? The first Illuminatus.
On the more respectable side of things, we spot traces of Illumination in, first of all, the very existence of an “establishment,” a ruling class that considers itself possessed of come special knowledge needed to lead, and even more so in establishment institutions: the Council on Foreign Relations, the Trilateral Commission (with its ominous triangular logo), the Bilderberg Group. All are private bodies composed of business, political, and academic “leading lights,” so to speak, which despite the contrary protestations of their members, do in fact wield considerable influence over how geopolitics shape up. The Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) was born as an American offshoot of Cecil Rhodes’s British Round Table. Its roster has included most of the presidents and secretaries of state for the last six decades. Henry Kissinger was inducted as a young academic and the CFR published his breakthrough book, Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy, in which Kissinger originated the idea of “winnable” nuclear war.
When the CIA was founded in 1947, its “old boy network” also connected to the CFR. CIA officials still deliver off-the-record briefings to CFR meetings. The Trilateral Commission, founded by multinational banking demigod David Rockefeller, is an offshoot of the CFR, but with Japan included. Membership in the two groups overlaps considerably. Jimmy Carter was a Trilateral “commissioner,” and when he became president, conspiracy theorists were greatly alarmed.
The Netherlands-based Bilderberg Group is more shadowy, but it’s the same idea with many of the same members – only with a European accent.
The aim of these elite groups, according to anti-Illuminist lore, is to consolidate control through some form of “one-world government.” That is, to set up a “new world order.” Oddly, the “meditation room” in the United Nations building is decked out in eye-in-the-pyramid décor. A clue dropped to taunt those of us still in the dark? Not unlike George Bush’s repeated public expressions of enthusiasm for creating a new world order. A photograph of Bush in his hospital bed, surrounded by little kids with a pyramid in his lap (can anyone say “fertility rite”?), is said to be the Skull and Bones president’s favorite. If that’s just a legend, the snapshot is certainly the conspiracy theorists’ favorite. This is the same president whose initiation into his alma mater’s premier secret society required that he lie naked in a coffin – masturbating.
The Illuminati are everywhere, in one guise or another. All it takes is the will to recognize them. In their Masonic persona, mad genius conspiracy researcher James Shelby Downard has identified their handiwork in the Kennedy assassination.
A writer named Jay Katz (ne Jim Keith) in an intriguing monograph titled Saucers of the Illuminati, posits the enlightened ones as the all-too-human force behind the UFO phenomenon, while William Bramley in his book Gods of Eden makes an unsettlingly cogent case that the Illuminati overlords are in fact aliens – an argument put forth far more loosely by a wide variety of true believers from ultraconspiratorialist Bill Cooper to heavily armed cult priestess Elizabeth Clare Prophet, the millennialist leader of the Church Universal and Triumphant in Montana.
Adam Weishaupt and his cadre of bookworm revolutionaries come off as nickel-and-dimers compared to that lot.