What exactly is the Illuminati? Conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones believe it is a clandestine, possibly satanic organization secretly controlling every aspect of the world as we know it. According to rumors, the Illuminati even orchestrated several celebrity deaths for the group's own societal gain. The organization's alleged ultimate goal is to implement the New World Order, described by New York Magazine writer Hua Hsu as "an all-powerful, possibly Luciferian, one-world government."
But is the Illuminati real? If we're going by the conspiratorial definition, probably not. A real secret society operated under this name for a brief period in the 18th century, but it bared little resemblance to the supposedly influential and nefarious organization we speak of today.
How did this small intellectual group of yesteryear become - at least in the eyes of conspiracy theorists - the single most insidious shadow network of all time? Here are the verifiable, undeniable Illuminati facts, from the society's quiet inception and swift disbandment, to its alleged resurgence as the rumored nexus of all evil.
Outwardly, the man behind the Order of the Illuminati, Adam Weishaupt, seemed like an ordinary scholar, professor, and family man. In 1775, he began teaching natural and canon law at the University of Ingolstadt in the Electorate of Bavaria, which is now a part of Germany.
Weishaupt grew up in Ingolstadt and was orphaned at an early age. He was largely educated by his uncle, an academic with an extensive library. Possessing a naturally restless mind, Weishaupt consumed every French Enlightenment text available to him. The ideas in these books led Weishaupt to develop a general mistrust of states dominated by religious views, especially his heavily Catholic homeland, Bavaria.
He was not against religion altogether, but he insisted its imposition upon the state hindered free thought. He believed the Catholic Church, in particular, was intolerant and bigoted. Thus, to combat the Church's stranglehold on knowledge in his country, he began to envision a formal group favoring illumination rather than suppression.
Adam Weishaupt's personal views inadvertently led to our modern interpretation of the Illuminati as an anti-Christian organization. Michael Barkun, author of A Culture of Conspiracy, notes the connection between conspiracy theorists and fundamentalist Christians worried about the Antichrist.
This is due to the influence of writers like Texe Marrs, who believed political elites were "beholden to the Antichrist," as well as televangelist Pat Robertson. His 1991 book The New World Order purports to expose a satanic "Establishment" of networked organizations secretly controlling the world, including New Age leaders, Freemasons, and, of course, the Illuminati.
Moreover, author Dan Brown's 2000 novel Angels & Demons presents readers with a resurfaced Illuminati that is "deeply anti-Christian" and hellbent on revenge against the Catholic Church. While Brown isn't solely responsible for re-imagining the Illuminati as we known it today, his novel's popularity (as well as that of its sequel, The Da Vinci Code) certainly helped.
If there's any group as commonly associated with conspiracy theories as the Illuminati, it's the Freemasons, another secular secret society founded at least 60 years prior. When Adam Weishaupt sought an organization eschewing religion in favor of intellectual enlightenment, he considered joining a Masonic lodge, but did not formally join their ranks (at least, not at first).
Accounts differ as to why Weishaupt did not join the Freemasons. According to National Geographic, he became "disillusioned" with the Masons' beliefs - and the disillusionment was possibly due to the organization's religious leanings. On the other hand, Live Science states Weishaupt lacked the funds necessary to join, and also felt the group was too well-known to properly support his quest toward illumination outside of the watchful eye of the Church.
Whatever the case, on May 1, 1776, Weishaupt ended up forming his own society, the Order of the Illuminati. However, even though he forged his own path, Weishaupt and early member Baron Adolph von Knigge borrowed generously from the Freemasons' basic structure.
They implemented secret code names (Weishaupt was Spartacus, for instance, while Knigge went by Philo); created a membership hierarchy based on seniority and extent of knowledge, with the ability to ascend into higher "ranks;" and partook in bizarre initiation rituals, though details remain scant thanks to the society's secrecy.
But Weishaupt wasn't quite done with the Freemasons. Nearly a year after founding the Illuminati, he joined his local Masonic lodge. This was not a two-timing situation, however; Weishaupt joined in order to recruit Masons over to his own organization - a poaching effort other Illuminati members adopted, as well.
Because of the relative proximity of the groups' foundations, as well as the similarities between their operations - especially their clandestine nature - many people conflate or confuse the two groups. This may, in part, explain why some believe the Illuminati still exists. While Weishaupt's group caved within a decade, the Freemasons remain active.
Conspiracy theorists often point to the Eye of Providence - the symbol of an eye, sometimes hovering within a triangle - as evidence of modern-day Illuminati influence. One only has to search Google Images for "Illuminati" for proof of this. Even prominent celebrities like rapper Jay-Z and his superstar singer wife Beyoncé (both accused of acting as agents for the secret society) playfully flash triangles and encircle their eyes at concerts.
But how did this symbol become so entangled with the Illuminati, especially since neither Adam Weishaupt nor any member of the Illuminati ever adopted it into the society's iconography? The answer has to do with the Founding Fathers of the United States, as well as the Freemasons.
According to Business Insider writers Nathaniel Lee and David Anderson, the symbol has roots in Christianity, with the three points of its triangle representing the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. The eye supposedly represents the all-seeing eye of God - though its basic structure may reference the Egyptian Eye of Horus, a falcon god able to "see all."
As historian S. Brent Morris notes, this "all-seeing eye" appeared in numerous Renaissance works and was a recognizable symbol by the time the Founding Fathers set about creating a new country.
Weishaupt sought enlightenment apart from the Catholic Church - an institution literally watching over Bavaria - so it seems unlikely he would choose such a religiously charged symbol to represent his society. However, prominent players in the American Revolution created their own version of the emblem to act as the new country's Great Seal, which eventually found its way onto the back of the US $1 bill.
They chose a pyramid - either unwittingly or intentionally recalling Egyptian iconography - with the Eye of Providence floating above it because the structure represented strength and stability. According to Nancy Marshall-Genzer of Marketplace, "The Founding Fathers wanted the country to last as long as the pyramids." The eye serves the same purpose, with God always watching over the United States. In the eyes of the Founding Fathers, the country's success directly depended upon God's providence.
Many believe the prominence of Freemasonry membership among the Founding Fathers influenced their choice of the Eye of Providence as part of the Great Seal of the United States, but it was the other way around. While it is true the Freemasons used an all-seeing eye in some of their iconography, they didn't include a triangle in their designs until 1797, well after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Moreover, there was only one Mason on the design committee of the Great Seal: Benjamin Franklin. However, Congress rejected his contributions.
Despite these facts, and because the public tends to confuse the two groups, a tenacious theory persists. Some people still believe the Eye of Providence represents Weishaupt's society - and that its appearance on the US $1 bill denotes the push toward a New World Order.