The shadowy world of the “Illuminati”

The popular film Angels & Demons packs a lot of information about hidden conspiracies into 138 minutes. And most of it is wrong.
Massimo Introvigne | May 22 2009 | comment  

MassimoIntrovigne, of the Centerfor Studies on New Religions, gives some background on themysterious Illuminati whom Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon tracksdown in Angels & Demons.

Again? After The DaVinci Code another Ron Howard movie againstthe Catholic Church?

Introvigne: The situationis not the same. The Da Vinci Code,both as a book and as a movie, did cause serious damage by attackingthe very core of the Christian faith, the historical Jesus Christ andthe Christian persuasion that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. Angels& Demons was published before TheDa Vinci Code and originally was not verysuccessful. Only after the Codewas it republished and it went on to become an internationalbestseller. The novel was quite anti-Catholic. Less so the movie,where some of the crudest anti-Catholic attacks of the novel havebeen omitted.

The movie -- a better movie than TheDa Vinci Code as a thriller -- does includea number of factual mistakes, but confusion about how the Pope iselected is admittedly less threatening for the faith than denying thedivinity of Jesus Christ. Repeating old myths about the Illuminatidoes disturb professional scholars but is not directly against theChristian faith. From a Roman Catholic point of view the mostdisturbing parts of the movie are those spreading the false myth thatthe Church organized “purges” and massacres of scientists, andthe cavalier way in which the delicate question of the relationshipbetween faith and science is discussed. But there are literallyhundreds of books, novels and movies spreading the same myths.

Certainly Angels & Demonsmay be criticized for this, and Christianscholars would do well to set the record straight. But we are notconfronted with the same level of anti-Christian attack of TheDa Vinci Code. While the strong Christianreaction against the Codewas unavoidable, mobilizing Christians in the same way against themovie Angels & Demonswould probably amount to overkill.

What about the conclave? Does the movie get itright?

Introvigne: Not really. There are no“preferiti” (favorites) in a conclave, nor a “great elector”who is not himself eligible. In order to become Pope, contrary towhat the movie claims, it is not necessary to be a bishop physicallypresent in the Sistine Chapel (any male Catholic baptized, adult andcelibate may be elected). In Angels & Demons a centralcharacter is a “camerlengo” who is not a cardinal. In fact, sincethe 15th century, the “camerlengo”, who manages the Church duringthe interregnum following the death of a Pope, is indeed a cardinal.

Did the “great castration” of the “pagan”statues by the Blessed Pius IX (1792-1878) really happen?

Introvigne: No, it didn’t. The legend datesback to English-language anti-clerical pamphlets of the late 19thcentury. What is true is that certain statues had their prominentgenitalia covered by fig leaves. This happened at various stagesduring the 17th, 18th, and 19th century (not only in Rome) and wascertainly not a new idea of Pius IX. The claim in the movie thatpagan statues in the center of Rome were destroyed by Pius IX “atthe end of the 19th century” is preposterous. At “the end of the19th century” Pius IX was dead, and the center of Rome wasadministered by the (quite anti-clerical) Kingdom of Italy. Ifanything, Pius IX had a keen interest in archeology and in restoringthe ancient historical and artistic monuments of Rome. He was evencriticized for this by Catholics who believed that supporting Romanarcheology was not part of the Church’s mission, or a waste of itsresources.

In the movie Langdon tells the story of “laPurga” (the Purge) as follows: “1668, the church kidnapped fourIlluminati scientists and branded each one of them on the chest withthe symbol of the cross, to purge them of their sins. And theyexecuted them, threw their bodies in the street as a warning toothers to stop questioning church ruling on scientific matters”.Did this really happen?

Introvigne: No, it didn’t. No such executionor killing took place in 1668, nor at any other date.

OK. But we all know that the Church was at warwith science for centuries…

Introvigne: The question of the relationshipbetween religion and science in general, and science and the CatholicChurch in particular, is very complicated. Certainly it cannot besolved by a movie in a two-minute speech. Vatican documents haverecognized that mistakes were made by men of the Church (as well asby scientists). It is however important to recognize that science wasborn in the West (and it was not born elsewhere), as sociologistRodney Stark has illustrated, mostly because of the Church’steaching about a world created according to reason and about thepossibility that human reason can discover the rules of the world.These efforts by human reason, which created science, were born inmonasteries and Catholic universities.

Several great scientists were pious Christians, notonly in the Middle Ages. Other scientists did and do not like thatthe Church constantly reminds them that science should respect, justas any other fully human enterprise, certain moral limits, a topicwhich is must debated today. There have been and there [still] arealso some scientists who claim to be able to “prove” that Goddoes not exist, a claim whose nature is obviously not scientific butreligious in itself.

Did Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) write a bookknown as Diagramma veritatis (Diagramof Truth)?

Introvigne: No.

In the movie, Langdon enters the Vatican SecretArchives, where, inter alia, the documents of the Galileo trial arekept. Are these documents really secret?

Introvigne: The name “Vatican SecretArchives” is somewhat misleading. It is the historical name of theVatican Archives but, at least from the end of the 19th century, anyscholar with credentials (Catholic or non-Catholic) has no moretrouble accessing documents there than in any other major archivethroughout the world. The documents of the Galileo trial have beenstudied by many scholars, both Catholic and non-Catholic, in the lasttwo centuries. Rather than concealing these documents the VaticanSecret Archives themselves started publishing an annotated edition in1984.

In the same Vatican Secret Archives, in a section“Banco Vaticano”, there is according to the movie a fullinventory of the Catholic Church’s many possessions, including theworks of art. True?

Introvigne: False. Thereis no such inventory, nor does a Vatican bank called “BancoVaticano” exists.

The movie claims that English was forbidden inthe 16th and 17th century by the Catholic Church as an “evil”language, and was used by international scientists such as theIlluminati. This sounds strange. Is there some truth in it?

Introvigne: No. Both the 16th and the 17thcentury had a sizeable Catholic literature in English. Scientistswrote mostly in Latin. In the novel (and in the movie) this strangetheory is used in order to explain why exactly a secret societysupposedly active in Rome in the 17th century such as the Illuminatishould use word games in English and brand English words on the chestof their enemies (of course, the real answer is that Dan Brownoriginally wrote his novel in English and had in mind anEnglish-speaking audience).

Angels & Demons by DanBrown is not the first bestselling novel claiming that the Illuminatiwere, or are, an important and powerful secret society. Is this onlya novel?

Introvigne: Not accordingto Dan Brown himself. He claims in hiswebsite that: “Secret societies like the Illuminati go toenormous lengths to remain covert. Although many classifiedintelligence reports have been written on the brotherhood, few havebeen published. Conspiracy theories on the Illuminati includeinfiltration of the British Parliament and US Treasury, secretinvolvement with the Masons, affiliation with covert Satanic cults, aplan for a New World Order, and even the resurgence of their ancientpact to destroy Vatican City.

Separating Illuminati fact from fiction can bedifficult on account of the massive quantities of misinformation thathas been generated about the brotherhood. Some theorists claim thisplethora of misinformation is actually generated by the Illuminatithemselves in an effort to discredit any factual information that mayhave surfaced. This concealment tactic – known as ‘data-sowing’– is often employed by US intelligence agencies”. Actually, DanBrown seems to take the continuing existence of Illuminati even moreseriously than his character Robert Langdon.

But the existence of the Illuminati is anhistorical fact, isn’t it?

Introvigne: Yes, it is. The Order of theIlluminati was established on May 1, 1776 at the University ofIngolstadt, then part of the Kingdom of Bavaria, in Germany, by aprofessor of law called Adam Weishaupt (1748-1830). The Illuminatiwere an interesting organization, with both esoteric rituals and apolitical aim, based on the Enlightenment philosophy and ultimatelyaimed at overthrowing the Roman Catholic and politically conservativeKingdom of Bavaria and replacing it with a liberal republic.

Were the Illuminati part of Freemasonry?

Introvigne: Not originally. Weishaupt wasquite critical of Freemasonry and wanted to establish a differentorder with different rituals. He, however, failed to produce ritualsinteresting enough to attract a significant number of followers, andin February 1777 decided to be initiated as a Freemason in a MunichMasonic lodge known as Zur Behutsamkeit (“The Prudence”).In 1780, a prominent German Freemason, Baron Adolf Franz FriedrichLudwig von Knigge (1752-1796), joined the Illuminati and by January1782 he had rewritten their rituals in a much more Masonic form.Although this ritual was essentially Masonic, and many members wereFreemasons, however, the Illuminati as such were not part ofFreemasonry.

Did these Illuminati succeed in their purposes?

Introvigne: In a way, yes. The new ritual wasquite successful, and the Illuminati were able to recruit some 2,500members both in Bavaria and various European countries, not a smallnumber by the standard of esoteric orders in general. On the otherhand, the Illuminati’s political aim was not achieved. Between 1784and 1787 documents were seized by the Bavarian police proving thattheirs was a political plot aimed at overthrowing the government.Some members were arrested, although none was treated too severely bythe Bavarian government, and they escaped with fines or a few monthsin jail, whilst Weishaupt himself fled Bavaria and lived quitepeacefully in other parts of Germany until his death in 1830. TheIlluminati survived outside Bavaria, thanks to the efforts of one oftheir leaders, Johann Joachim Christoph Bode (1730-1793), but hadceased any activity by 1790.

Wasn’t there something sinister in theIlluminati’s activities?

Introvigne: Yes. Their political activitieswere not confined to legal means. In October 1786 the police raidedthe home of a prominent member of the Illuminati, the diplomat FranzXavier von Zwack (1755-1843), and seized documents indicating thatthe Order was ready to poison several of its political foes, althoughthese plans were never executed.

But didn’t the Illuminati claim a much olderorigin than 1776?

Introvigne: Yes, they did. Weishauptoriginally claimed that the Illuminati originated with the last Kingof Persia who was a Zoroastrian by religion, Yadzegerd III (†651),although he confused him with Yadzegerd II (†457, King of Persiafrom 438 to 457), and built a whole genealogy listing many famoushistorical characters. When Knigge joined the Order, he askedWeishaupt for evidence of this genealogy. Weishaupt wrote back inJanuary 1781 that the genealogy was an “innocent lie”, in factneeded because not many would have joined a newly established order(see René Le Forestier, Les Illuminés de Bavière et lafranc-maçonnerie allemande, Paris: Hachette 1914, 227 – thebook is the doctoral dissertation of a famous French historian, and akey source for the Illuminati). Rather than being offended, Kniggeagreed that a mythical genealogy was indeed needed, and proceeded tobuild one of his own, where the Illuminati were declared as havingoriginally been founded by Noah, and revived after a period ofdecline by St John the Evangelist.

What about the Knights Templar? Weren’t theysomewhat involved, too?

Introvigne: Yes, according to Knigge’sgenealogy. In fact, at that time the Knights Templar were claimed asancestors by the German Freemasonry as a whole. When modernFreemasonry came from its original United Kingdom to continentalEurope, many European nobles were not prepared to join an order whosereal origins were in the professional corporations of “freemasons”, including architects, building contractors but also commonstonemasons. In 1736, André Michel de Ramsay (1686-1743) told in afamous discourse the French nobles he hoped to recruit intoFreemasonry that, in fact, the British corporations of “freemasons” were the places where persecuted knights went into hiding,thus creating a mythical (but more acceptable) origin for the Masoniclodges. In Germany, speculations about an alleged secret prosecutionof the Roman Catholic Order of the Knights Templar, suppressed by theCatholic Church in 1307, were quite widespread, Ramsay’s“persecuted knights” were quickly identified with the KnightsTemplar.

While it is true that the Knights Templar did survivein some countries for a century after their suppression, legends of asecret prosecution after the 15th century are regarded as “hopelesslystupid”, in the words of famous French historian Régine Pernoud(1909-1998), by academic historians of Templarism. In fact, from the18th century on, most esoteric orders give to their members mythicalgenealogies that would include the Knights Templar, Noah, St John orKing Solomon, as well as famous people of literature and art.Usually, most of their members are aware of the merely symbolic andmythical character of these genealogies. Certainly, both Weishauptand Knigge were aware that their genealogies were “symbolic” or,more simply, made up by themselves. There were no Illuminati before1776.

But weren’t the Illuminati the driving forcebehind the French Revolution?

Introvigne: Not really. Anti-revolutionaryauthors, including Protestant John Robison (1739-1805) and RomanCatholic Fr Augustin Barruel (1741-1820), claimed that the FrenchRevolution was the result of a Masonic conspiracy, and that theIlluminati were the secret leaders of the French Freemasonry. We donot need to address here the complicated question of the relationshipbetween Freemasonry, the Enlightenment, and the French Revolution.What is historically clear, however, is that the Illuminati, who wereabout to cease their existence in 1789, did not play any crucial rolein the preparation of the French Revolution.

The links between the Bavarian group and the FrenchFreemasonry were tenuous at best, and in fact many French Freemasonswere quite hostile to the Illuminati, and certainly not prepared toaccept the leadership of a German order. For a number of politicalreasons, however, Robison’s theories were particularly successfulin the United States, where President Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)was accused of being a member of the dreaded sect.

But wasn’t the back part of the Great Seal ofthe United States, the one we still see on the dollar bill, a symbolof the Illuminati?

Introvigne: No, no matter how many books (andmovies) claim it. The pyramid and eye symbol is never found among theIlluminati. Actually it is not even a Masonic symbol, although thereare similar symbols in Freemasonry, where a fascination with Egyptwas widespread in the 18th and 19th century. The particular pyramidused in the Great Seal was derived from Pyramidographia, abook published in 1646 in London by John Greaves (1602-1652), basedon his trip to Egypt. The eye was introduced by Congress SecretaryCharles Thomson (1729-1824) – who was not a Freemason – in his1792 speech prior to the seal’s Congressional acceptance as a veryChristian “eye of the Providence” presiding over the destiny ofthe United States. As such, it is featured in a number of Christianchurches and symbols, quite apart from, and well before, its usewithin the frame of Masonic rituals.

Didn’t many always accept the theory, however,that the Illuminati were leading the world or, at least, the USA?

Introvigne: Not before 1975. From the mid-19thcentury to 1975 the theory of the great Illuminati conspiracyremained the province of fringe “conspirationist” authors, notparticularly well-known by the general public. In 1975, a trilogyknown as Illuminatus was published by Robert Joseph Shea(1933-1994) and Robert Anton Wilson (born 1932). The three novelswere written somewhat tongue-in-check, and Shea and Wilson were partof a neo-pagan group known as the Discordians, worshippers of Eristhe Great Goddess of Chaos through “cosmic jokes”.

Actually, these are libertarian novels, whereWeishaupt does not die in Germany but emigrates to the AmericanBritish colonies, where he assumes the name of George Washington andestablishes the United States. When the US evolves into anauthoritarian, repressive state under the secret leadership of theIlluminati, Discordians organize the resistance in the name ofliberty, Chaos, and the Great Goddess Eris. It is after Shea andWilson’s novels that the Illuminati start popping up literallyeverywhere, from Umberto Eco’s novel Foucault’s Pendulum(1988) to the movie Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001),including countless comics, role-playing games, and miscellaneouspieces of fiction.

Unfortunately, some did not realize the nature of theIlluminatus novels, or even claimed that Shea and Wilsonrevealed a real conspiracy under the guise of fiction. This theoryachieved a certain degree of success among Protestantfundamentalists. Its leading proponent, Milton William Cooper(1943-2001), died in a confrontation with law enforcement officers onNovember 5, 2001. He refused to pay taxes to the US government,claiming it was controlled by the Illuminati.

What about the Skull and Bones, the famousfraternal society of Yale’s students and alumni? One hearsfrequently that it is part of the Illuminati…

Introvigne: No relation. The Skull and Boneswas established in 1832 by William Huntington Russell (1809-1885),when the original Illuminati were long since dead. Some tenuoussimilarity may be explained by the fact that both Weishaupt’sIlluminati and Russell’s Skull and Bones did take inspiration inthe many “secret” student societies which existed in Germanuniversities since the 18th century. By the way, many stories toldabout the Skull and Bones are simply tall tales – they are justanother academic fraternity, which includes famous people becausefamous people do happen to have studied at Yale – and in 1986 itwas finally ascertained that even their famous skull did notreally belong to legendary Indian chief Geronimo (1829-1909). TheApaches, to which The Skull and Bones was prepared to give back theskull, declared it unconnected with Geronimo and refused it.

But didn’t an Order of the Illuminati exist inthe 20th century, too?

Introvigne: Yes. Within the framework of theGerman occult revival at the end of the 19th century, Leopold Engel(1858-1931) “revived” – in his own words – the Bavarian Orderof the Illuminati on March 12, 1901. He and his associate TheodorReuss (1855-1923) – later to become famous as a sexual magician andan associate of famous British occult master Aleister Crowley(1875-1947) – were spreading the word that the order had beenrevived since 1896. Later, they claimed that the revival took placein 1880, but this date is certainly false. As usual, Engel and Reusstold the members of their newly founded order that it was both veryold and a legitimate continuation of the Bavarian Illuminati, whosesuccession had been transmitted from father to son within Reuss’family.

It was claimed that the Illuminati originated inIndia and Egypt, were behind the Italian Renaissance andpost-Renaissance art and science (hence the references to GianLorenzo Bernini and Galileo Galilei, quite familiar to the readers ofAngels & Demons), and included among their members animpressive roster of historical characters, from Ulysses andAristotle (384-322 BC) to – yes, indeed – Thomas Jefferson. Onceagain, however, Engel did admit – in writing – that thisgenealogy was mythical and symbolic, and should not be taken at facevalue. As for the story of a family succession connecting Reuss tothe Bavarian Illuminati, Engel later declared that it was a figmentof Reuss’ imagination.

Who was Leopold Engel, exactly?

Introvigne: An interesting character. He was amember of the inner circle of the loosely organized movementincluding the followers of the Austrian Christian visionary andmystic Jakob Lorber (1800-1864). In fact, Engel “received”spiritually (today, the word “channelled” would be used) themissing eleventh volume of Lorber’s masterpiece The Great Gospelof John, a volume still accepted as a legitimate part of theLorber canon by many (although by no means all) Lorberians. He wasalso a prolific science fiction and dime novels writer. In fact, heseemed to have led a double life, keeping his Lorberian andIlluminati activities quite separate, although the Illuminatimaterials written by Engel do show the influence of Lorber.

Do Engel’s Illuminati still exist?

Introvigne: Yes. Although persecuted in NaziGermany, the Illuminati were able to survive in Switzerland,particularly thanks to the efforts of Felix Lazerus Pinkus(1881-1947), a rich left-wing economist, supported in many ways byHermann Joseph Metzger (1919-1990), a baker by trade as well as astage hypnotist, who maintained alive the Order of the Illuminatiuntil his death in 1990, and created an Illuminati center in theSwiss village of Stein, in the canton of Outer Appenzell. A smallnumber of his disciples still live or at least periodically meetthere, and they are the only legitimate heirs of Engel’sIlluminati. Of course one can join a number of other “Orders of theIlluminati”, some of them on-line by paying a fee, but these do noteven have the legitimacy of a succession from Engel’s organization.

Can we characterize the Illuminati, as Dan Brownwould have it, as a conspiracy to destroy the Vatican and its powerin the name of reason and science?

Introvigne: As mentioned earlier, the names offamous scientists mentioned as Illuminati are part of mythicalgenealogies with no historical basis. The Illuminati were mostlyrecruited among lawyers, governmental officers, and even liberalclergymen, with very few scientists, if any. Weishaupt’s Illuminatitaught to their new members a rather tame version of theEnlightenment philosophy, quite close to the ideas of Immanuel Kant(1724-1804). Weishaupt ostensibly claimed to be against thecontinuing reactionary influence of the Jesuits (temporarilysuppressed in 1773), but not against Roman Catholicism per se.However, those who reached his inner circle discovered a stronganti-clericalism and anti-Catholicism, and some documents openlypromoted secular humanism and atheism. Anti-clericalism was also afeature of Engel’s order, although not a particularly prominentone. No historical Illuminati order ever boasted that it would“destroy the Vatican”, a claim which would seem quitepreposterous to anybody who takes into account the real number oftheir members and the extension of their activities

Were, or are, the Illuminati a very powerfulorder?

Introvigne: They certainly aren’t powerfultoday. The main aim of the Stein group, reduced to less than a dozenmembers, is to survive. Engel’s group did not have any particularpower. It had a certain cultural influence and initiated twodistinguished novelists, Gustav Meyrink (1868-1932) and Franz Spunda(1890-1963), but this was rather limited to the occult subcultureitself.

The Bavarian Illuminati were a much more importantorganization, and deserve more than a footnote in German history.They managed to include among their members three ruling princes,Duke Charles August of Saxony-Weimar (1757-1828), Duke Ernst II ofSaxony-Gotha (1745-1804), and Duke Charles William Fredericof Brunswick (1735-1806) In 1783 Duke Charles August persuadedtwo famous protegés of his, Johann Wolfgang Goethe (1749-1832) andJohann Gottfried von Herder (1744-1803), at that time the two leadingGerman intellectuals, to join him among the Illuminati, althoughboth, having been initiated, were never particularly active in theOrder. Weishaupt and his close associates, unbeknownst to theseprinces and luminaries, were able to use the Illuminati for a veryreal political conspiracy, aimed at seizing power in Bavaria, whichcame close to succeeding.

Having said so much, it is equally important not toexaggerate the Bavarian Illuminati’s role, which was close tonon-existent outside Germany, and to remember that by 1790 they hadfully ceased to exist. Those who want to persuade us that a secretIlluminati cabal did lead the world from the Renaissance to the 19thcentury, and continues to do so today, have a very difficult burdenof proof, and have never even come close to producing documents orevidence that such is the case.

ThisQ&A has been reproduced with permission from the Center forStudies on New Religions. Massimo Introvigne is the founder andmanaging director of the Center for Studies on New Religions, aninternational network of scholars who study new religious movements.He is the author of more than 40 books, mostly on the sociology ofreligion.

This article is published by Massimo Introvigne and under a Creative Commons licence. You may republish it or translate it free of charge with attribution for non-commercial purposes following these guidelines. If you teach at a university we ask that your department make a donation. Commercial media must contact us for permission and fees. Some articles on this site are published under different terms.

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