The Illuminati (plural of Latin illuminatus, "enlightened") is a name given to several groups, both real and fictitious. Historically, the name usually refers to the Bavarian Illuminati, an Enlightenment-era secret society founded on 1 May 1776. The society's goals were to oppose superstition, obscurantism, religious influence over public life, and abuses of state power. "The order of the day," they wrote in their general statutes, "is to put an end to the machinations of the purveyors of injustice, to control them without dominating them". The Illuminati—along with Freemasonry and other secret societies—were outlawed through edict, by the Bavarian ruler, Charles Theodore, with the encouragement of the Roman Catholic Church, in 1784, 1785, 1787 and 1790. In the several years following, the group was vilified by conservative and religious critics who claimed that they continued underground and were responsible for the French Revolution.
Many influential intellectuals and progressive politicians counted themselves as members, including Ferdinand of Brunswick and the diplomat Xavier von Zwack, who was the Order's second-in-command. It attracted literary men such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Johann Gottfried Herder and the reigning dukes of Gotha and Weimar.
In subsequent use, "Illuminati" refers to various organisations which claim or are purported to have links to the original Bavarian Illuminati or similar secret societies, though these links are unsubstantiated. They are often alleged to conspire to control world affairs, by masterminding events and planting agents in government and corporations, in order to gain political power and influence and to establish a New World Order. Central to some of the most widely known and elaborate conspiracy theories, the Illuminati have been depicted as lurking in the shadows and pulling the strings and levers of power in dozens of novels, films, television shows, comics, video games, and music videos.
Adam Weishaupt (1748–1830) was a professor of Canon Law and practical philosophy at the University of Ingolstadt. He was the only non-clerical professor at an institution run by Jesuits, whose order had been dissolved in 1773. The Jesuits of Ingolstadt, however, still retained the purse strings and some power at the University, which they continued to regard as their own. Constant attempts were made to frustrate and discredit non-clerical staff, especially when course material contained anything they regarded as liberal or Protestant. Weishaupt became deeply anti-clerical, resolving to spread the ideals of the Enlightenment (Aufklärung) through some sort of secret society of like-minded individuals.
Finding Freemasonry to be expensive, and not open to his ideas, he founded his own society which was to have a gradal system based on Freemasonry, but his own agenda. His original name for the new order was Bund der Perfektibilisten, or Covenant of Perfectibility (Perfectibilists), later changing it because it sounded too strange. On 1 May 1776 Weishaupt and four students formed the Perfectibilists, taking the Owl of Minerva as their symbol. The members were to use aliases within the society. Weishaupt became Spartacus. Law students Massenhausen, Bauhof, Merz and Sutor became respectively Ajax, Agathon, Tiberius and Erasmus Roterodamus. Weishaupt later expelled Sutor for indolence. It was not until April 1778 that the order became the Illuminatenorden, or Order of Illuminati, after Weishaupt had seriously contemplated the Bee order.
Massenhausen was initially the most active in expanding the society. Significantly, while studying in Munich shortly after the formation of the order, he recruited Xavier von Zwack, a former pupil of Weishaupt at the beginning of a significant administrative career. (At the time, he was in charge of the Bavarian National Lottery.) Massenhausen's enthusiasm soon became a liability in the eyes of Weishaupt, often attempting to recruit unsuitable candidates. Later, his erratic love-life made him neglectful, and as Weishaupt passed control of the Munich group to Zwack, it became clear that Massenhausen had misappropriated subscriptions and intercepted correspondence between Weishaupt and Zwack. In 1778, Massenhausen graduated and took a post outside Bavaria, taking no further interest in the order. At this time, the order had a nominal membership of twelve.
With the departure of Massenhausen, Zwack immediately applied himself to recruiting more mature and important recruits. Most prized by Weishaupt was Hertel, a childhood friend and a canon of the Munich Frauenkirche. By the end of summer 1778 the order had 27 members (still counting Massenhausen) in 5 commands; Munich (Athens), Ingolstadt (Eleusis), Ravensberg (Sparta), Freysingen (Thebes), and Eichstaedt (Erzurum).
During this early period, the order had three grades of Novice, Minerval, and Illuminated Minerval, of which only the Minerval grade involved a complicated ceremony. In this the candidate was given secret signs and a password. A system of mutual espionage kept Weishaupt informed of the activities and character of all his members, his favourites becoming members of the ruling council, or Areopagus. Some novices were permitted to recruit, becoming Insinuants. Christians of good character were actively sought, with Jews and pagans specifically excluded, along with women, monks, and members of other secret societies. Favoured candidates were rich, docile, willing to learn, and aged 18–30.