If you're a proponent of conspiracy theories, you might believe that there's a secret organization that covertly controls every aspect of society, from the banks, to the government, and even our entertainment industries. Yes, we're talking about the Illuminati, a group that supposedly consists of the world’s most powerful people. Beyonce and Jay-Z are rumored to be members (along with a host of other celebrities), and the group is said to be behind some of the last century’s most historically important events, like the assassination of John F. Kennedy. But what exactly is the Illuminati—and do they even exist? Let’s dive in to a brief history of this notorious and mysterious group.
1. The Illuminati was once a real organization.
Though there were a number of early Illuminati-like groups, things really kicked off with the Bavarian Illuminati, a secret society founded on May 1, 1776, in what was then known as the Electorate of Bavaria (part of modern-day Germany). The group was founded by Adam Weishaupt, a philosopher and professor at the University of Ingolstadt. At the school—which was heavily influenced by Jesuit doctrine—Weishaupt (a former Jesuit) had a hard time finding acceptance for his secular and liberal thinking. He wanted to connect with like-minded free-thinkers, so he decided to start his own secret society, and The Order of the Illuminati was born.
2. The Illuminati's goal was to encourage a rational society.
While there are differing descriptions of the group’s stated goals, the Illuminati's main mission was in line with the values of the Enlightenment: The group sought to promote rational thinking and knowledge. Weishaupt said that current systems "leave us under the dominion of political and religious prejudices," whereas the Illuminati “frees ... from all religious prejudices; cultivates the social virtues; and animates them by a great, a feasible, and speedy prospect of universal happiness, in a state of liberty and moral equality, freed from the obstacles which subordination, rank, and riches, continually throw in our way.”
3. The Illuminati wasn't always called the Illuminati.
Originally, Weishaupt called his group the “Perfectibilists.” However, the founder quickly realized how silly that sounded and tried out a few other names, including The Bee Order (yes, really), before eventually landing on The Order of the Illuminati.
4. The Illuminati had strict membership requirements.
The Illuminati were an exclusive group of rich, successful men; no women or Jews were admitted into their ranks. Five men, all from the University of Ingolstadt, attended that first meeting in 1776. Any new members had to be vetted and approved by the existing group. Membership requirements included being well-educated and wealthy, having a strong reputation, and coming from a good family. They also had to be 30 years old or younger—the group believed anyone older to be too conservative and rigid in their ways. The group grew quickly, though, in part because the first members joined the Freemasons, another group for independent thinkers, to recruit other men—and, at its largest, had up to 2000 members, including doctors, lawyers, politicians, and intellectuals.
5. Members of the Illuminati worked their way through levels of enlightenment.
After joining, members of The Order of the Illuminati worked their way through a series of “levels” to show their progress toward enlightenment. Originally, the Illuminati had three different “levels of enlightenment” that members could achieve: novices, minervals, and illuminated minervals. (The Owl of Minerva was the group’s original symbol; Minerva was the Roman goddess of wisdom, and the Owl of Minerva symbolizes intelligence and wisdom and was a popular icon of independent, progressive thinkers of the era.)
However, a few years after its founding, a member named Baron von Knigge revised the system into as many as 13 levels, also known as “degrees,” which were then grouped into three classes. Von Knigge had been a member of the Freemasons before turning to the Illuminati, and his system was based on that of his former group. Reaching the highest level meant a member had achieved “philosophical illumination,” according to National Geographic, and he was given the title of “king.”
6. Members of the Illuminati used pseudonyms.
All Illuminati members were given pseudonyms that represented historical or important figures. For example, Weishaupt was known as “Spartacus” and von Knigge as “Philo.” Correspondence was written in cipher and even things like town names were replaced with an arbitrary word. It’s said that when the government raided member’s homes after shutting down the organization, instructions for making invisible ink were found.
7. The Illuminati were exposed by one of their own.
The original Bavarian Illuminati was in existence for less than a decade, from 1776 to 1785. A former member named Joseph Utzschneider was responsible for shutting them down. Utzschneider wrote a letter to the Grand Duchess of Bavaria that outed the group and their progressive beliefs (though it’s likely some of his claims were exaggerated). The Grand Duchess told her husband, the Duke of Bavaria, who first issued an edict in 1784 that banned the creation of any society not previously authorized by law, and then followed that up a year later with a new rule in 1785 that explicitly banned the secret society, and in 1787, membership was made punishable by death. The group was disbanded and Weishaupt was banished from Bavaria. According to most experts, this was the end of the Illuminati, though there are hundreds of conspiracy theories that suggest the group is very much still alive and running.
8. Conspiracy theories about the Illuminati began almost as soon as the order was shut down.
In 1797, physicist, mathematician, and later-in-life conspiracy theorist John Robison published a book called Proofs of a Conspiracy, in which he accused The Order of the Illuminati of infiltrating the Freemasons and helping to start the French Revolution.
This book eventually made its way to George Washington, a Master Mason, who had just wrapped up his time as president. After reading it, Washington wrote a letter intending to dispel the threat of the Illuminati, though his simply addressing the group only stoked conspiracy theories.
Similar writings and accusations followed, and public chatter about Illuminati conspiracies would die down and flare up again throughout the next centuries. There are dozens if not hundreds of conspiracy theories claiming that The Order of the Illuminati is still very much alive and well, and that they’re quietly working under the radar to establish a New World Order (the idea that a small group of very powerful people are working behind the scenes to put in place an authoritarian government that would rule the whole world). There is zero proof of that.
9. According to conspiracy theories, some of the world's biggest stars and historical figures are members of the Illuminati.
There are rumors that some of the world’s biggest pop stars and Hollywood celebrities are actually members of the Illuminati. Dr. Dre, Madonna, Bono, Justin Bieber, Nicki Minaj, Eminem, Whitney Houston, Katy Perry ... the list goes on, but at the top sit Jay-Z and Beyoncé. In all of these cases, it’s speculated that these stars owe their success to the help of the secret organization. (It’s relevant to note here that Beyoncé shut down those rumors in the first verse of her 2016 song “Formation”: “Y’all haters corny with that Illuminati mess.”) And it’s not just modern-day entertainers; historical figures such as Thomas Jefferson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Henry Kissinger, Winston Churchill, and John D. Rockefeller are rumored to have been involved with the Illuminati, too.
10. Rumor has it the Illuminati headquarters is located at Denver International Airport.
Since opening in 1995—more than a year late and $2 billion over budget—the Denver International Airport has found itself at the center of a variety of Illuminati-related conspiracy theories. The airport has a time capsule set to be opened in 2094 that’s emblazoned with icons of a Masonic square and compass, a symbol of the Freemasons—and, by conspiratorial extension, the Illuminati. There are also plaques stating that DEN was funded by the "New World Airport Commission" (hmmm, sounds an awful lot like New World Order, doesn’t it?) and rumors that the airport sits above a secret, underground Illuminati headquarters where the world’s elite will live after the apocalypse. The whole thing is wild speculation, but DEN has leaned into the theories—check out its #DENFILES website for some fun information.