The shadowy world of the “Illuminati”

MASSIMO INTROVIGNE

Massimo Introvigne, of the Center for Studies on New Religions, gives some background on the mysterious Illuminati whom Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon tracks down in Angels & Demons.

Again? After The Da Vinci Code another Ron Howard movie against the Catholic Church?

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

The movie -- a better movie than The Da Vinci Code as a thriller -- does include a number of factual mistakes, but confusion about how the Pope is elected is admittedly less threatening for the faith than denying the divinity of Jesus Christ. Repeating old myths about the Illuminati does disturb professional scholars but is not directly against the Christian faith. From a Roman Catholic point of view the most disturbing parts of the movie are those spreading the false myth that the Church organized "purges" and massacres of scientists, and the cavalier way in which the delicate question of the relationship between faith and science is discussed. But there are literally hundreds of books, novels and movies spreading the same myths.

Certainly Angels & Demons may be criticized for this, and Christian scholars would do well to set the record straight. But we are not confronted with the same level of anti-Christian attack of The Da Vinci Code. While the strong Christian reaction against the Code was unavoidable, mobilizing Christians in the same way against the movie Angels & Demons would probably amount to overkill.

What about the conclave? Does the movie get it right?

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 to what the movie claims, it is not necessary to be a bishop physically present in the Sistine Chapel (any male Catholic baptized, adult and celibate may be elected). In Angels & Demons a central character is a "camerlengo" who is not a cardinal. In fact, since the 15th century, the "camerlengo", who manages the Church during the 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?

From a Roman Catholic point of view the most disturbing parts of the movie are those spreading the false myth that the Church organized "purges" and massacres of scientists, and the cavalier way in which the delicate question of the relationship between faith and science is discussed.

Introvigne: No, it didn't. The legend dates back to English-language anti-clerical pamphlets of the late 19th century. What is true is that certain statues had their prominent genitalia covered by fig leaves. This happened at various stages during the 17th, 18th, and 19th century (not only in Rome) and was certainly not a new idea of Pius IX. The claim in the movie that pagan statues in the center of Rome were destroyed by Pius IX "at the end of the 19th century" is preposterous. At "the end of the 19th century" Pius IX was dead, and the center of Rome was administered by the (quite anti-clerical) Kingdom of Italy. If anything, Pius IX had a keen interest in archeology and in restoring the ancient historical and artistic monuments of Rome. He was even criticized for this by Catholics who believed that supporting Roman archeology was not part of the Church's mission, or a waste of its resources.

In the movie Langdon tells the story of "la Purga" (the Purge) as follows: "1668, the church kidnapped four Illuminati scientists and branded each one of them on the chest with the symbol of the cross, to purge them of their sins. And they executed them, threw their bodies in the street as a warning to others to stop questioning church ruling on scientific matters". Did this really happen?

Introvigne: No, it didn't. No such execution or killing took place in 1668, nor at any other date.

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

Introvigne: The question of the relationship between religion and science in general, and science and the Catholic Church in particular, is very complicated. Certainly it cannot be solved by a movie in a two-minute speech. Vatican documents have recognized that mistakes were made by men of the Church (as well as by scientists). It is however important to recognize that science was born in the West (and it was not born elsewhere), as sociologist Rodney Stark has illustrated, mostly because of the Church's teaching about a world created according to reason and about the possibility that human reason can discover the rules of the world. These efforts by human reason, which created science, were born in monasteries and Catholic universities.

Several great scientists were pious Christians, not only in the Middle Ages. Other scientists did and do not like that the Church constantly reminds them that science should respect, just as any other fully human enterprise, certain moral limits, a topic which is must debated today. There have been and there [still] are also some scientists who claim to be able to "prove" that God does not exist, a claim whose nature is obviously not scientific but religious in itself.

Did Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) write a book known as Diagramma veritatis (Diagram of Truth)?

Introvigne: No.

The name "Vatican Secret Archives" is somewhat misleading. It is the historical name of the Vatican Archives but, at least from the end of the 19th century, any scholar with credentials (Catholic or non-Catholic) has no more trouble accessing documents there than in any other major archive throughout the world. discussed.

In the movie, Langdon enters the Vatican Secret Archives, where, inter alia, the documents of the Galileo trial are kept. Are these documents really secret?

Introvigne: The name "Vatican Secret Archives" is somewhat misleading. It is the historical name of the Vatican Archives but, at least from the end of the 19th century, any scholar with credentials (Catholic or non-Catholic) has no more trouble accessing documents there than in any other major archive throughout the world. The documents of the Galileo trial have been studied by many scholars, both Catholic and non-Catholic, in the last two centuries. Rather than concealing these documents the Vatican Secret Archives themselves started publishing an annotated edition in 1984.

In the same Vatican Secret Archives, in a section "Banco Vaticano", there is according to the movie a full inventory of the Catholic Church's many possessions, including the works of art. True?

Introvigne: False. There is no such inventory, nor does a Vatican bank called "Banco Vaticano" exists.

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

Introvigne: No. Both the 16th and the 17th century had a sizeable Catholic literature in English. Scientists wrote mostly in Latin. In the novel (and in the movie) this strange theory is used in order to explain why exactly a secret society supposedly active in Rome in the 17th century such as the Illuminati should use word games in English and brand English words on the chest of their enemies (of course, the real answer is that Dan Brown originally wrote his novel in English and had in mind an English-speaking audience).

Angels & Demons by Dan Brown is not the first bestselling novel claiming that the Illuminati were, or are, an important and powerful secret society. Is this only a novel?

Introvigne: Not according to Dan Brown himself. He claims in his website that: "Secret societies like the Illuminati go to enormous lengths to remain covert. Although many classified intelligence reports have been written on the brotherhood, few have been published. Conspiracy theories on the Illuminati include infiltration of the British Parliament and US Treasury, secret involvement with the Masons, affiliation with covert Satanic cults, a plan for a New World Order, and even the resurgence of their ancient pact to destroy Vatican City.

Separating Illuminati fact from fiction can be difficult on account of the massive quantities of misinformation that has been generated about the brotherhood. Some theorists claim this plethora of misinformation is actually generated by the Illuminati themselves in an effort to discredit any factual information that may have surfaced. This concealment tactic -- known as 'data-sowing' -- is often employed by US intelligence agencies". Actually, Dan Brown seems to take the continuing existence of Illuminati even more seriously than his character Robert Langdon.

But the existence of the Illuminati is an historical fact, isn't it?

Introvigne: Yes, it is. The Order of the Illuminati was established on May 1, 1776 at the University of Ingolstadt, then part of the Kingdom of Bavaria, in Germany, by a professor of law called Adam Weishaupt (1748-1830). The Illuminati were an interesting organization, with both esoteric rituals and a political aim, based on the Enlightenment philosophy and ultimately aimed at overthrowing the Roman Catholic and politically conservative Kingdom of Bavaria and replacing it with a liberal republic.

Were the Illuminati part of Freemasonry?

Introvigne: Not originally. Weishaupt was quite critical of Freemasonry and wanted to establish a different order with different rituals. He, however, failed to produce rituals interesting enough to attract a significant number of followers, and in February 1777 decided to be initiated as a Freemason in a Munich Masonic lodge known as Zur Behutsamkeit ("The Prudence"). In 1780, a prominent German Freemason, Baron Adolf Franz Friedrich Ludwig von Knigge (1752-1796), joined the Illuminati and by January 1782 he had rewritten their rituals in a much more Masonic form. Although this ritual was essentially Masonic, and many members were Freemasons, however, the Illuminati as such were not part of Freemasonry.

Did these Illuminati succeed in their purposes?

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

Wasn't there something sinister in the Illuminati's activities?

Introvigne: Yes. Their political activities were not confined to legal means. In October 1786 the police raided the home of a prominent member of the Illuminati, the diplomat Franz Xavier von Zwack (1755-1843), and seized documents indicating that the Order was ready to poison several of its political foes, although these plans were never executed.

But didn't the Illuminati claim a much older origin than 1776?

Introvigne: Yes, they did. Weishaupt originally claimed that the Illuminati originated with the last King of Persia who was a Zoroastrian by religion, Yadzegerd III (†651), although he confused him with Yadzegerd II (†457, King of Persia from 438 to 457), and built a whole genealogy listing many famous historical characters. When Knigge joined the Order, he asked Weishaupt for evidence of this genealogy. Weishaupt wrote back in January 1781 that the genealogy was an "innocent lie", in fact needed because not many would have joined a newly established order (see René Le Forestier, Les Illuminés de Bavière et la franc-maçonnerie allemande, Paris: Hachette 1914, 227 -- the book is the doctoral dissertation of a famous French historian, and a key source for the Illuminati). Rather than being offended, Knigge agreed that a mythical genealogy was indeed needed, and proceeded to build one of his own, where the Illuminati were declared as having originally been founded by Noah, and revived after a period of decline by St John the Evangelist.

While it is true that the Knights Templar did survive in some countries for a century after their suppression, legends of a secret prosecution after the 15th century are regarded as "hopelessly stupid", in the words of famous French historian Régine Pernoud (1909-1998), by academic historians of Templarism.

What about the Knights Templar? Weren't they somewhat involved, too?

Introvigne: Yes, according to Knigge's genealogy. In fact, at that time the Knights Templar were claimed as ancestors by the German Freemasonry as a whole. When modern Freemasonry came from its original United Kingdom to continental Europe, many European nobles were not prepared to join an order whose real origins were in the professional corporations of "free masons", including architects, building contractors but also common stonemasons. In 1736, André Michel de Ramsay (1686-1743) told in a famous discourse the French nobles he hoped to recruit into Freemasonry that, in fact, the British corporations of "free masons" were the places where persecuted knights went into hiding, thus creating a mythical (but more acceptable) origin for the Masonic lodges. In Germany, speculations about an alleged secret prosecution of the Roman Catholic Order of the Knights Templar, suppressed by the Catholic Church in 1307, were quite widespread, Ramsay's "persecuted knights" were quickly identified with the Knights Templar.

While it is true that the Knights Templar did survive in some countries for a century after their suppression, legends of a secret prosecution after the 15th century are regarded as "hopelessly stupid", in the words of famous French historian Régine Pernoud (1909-1998), by academic historians of Templarism. In fact, from the 18th century on, most esoteric orders give to their members mythical genealogies that would include the Knights Templar, Noah, St John or King Solomon, as well as famous people of literature and art. Usually, most of their members are aware of the merely symbolic and mythical character of these genealogies. Certainly, both Weishaupt and Knigge were aware that their genealogies were "symbolic" or, more simply, made up by themselves. There were no Illuminati before 1776.

But weren't the Illuminati the driving force behind the French Revolution?

Introvigne: Not really. Anti-revolutionary authors, including Protestant John Robison (1739-1805) and Roman Catholic Fr Augustin Barruel (1741-1820), claimed that the French Revolution was the result of a Masonic conspiracy, and that the Illuminati were the secret leaders of the French Freemasonry. We do not need to address here the complicated question of the relationship between Freemasonry, the Enlightenment, and the French Revolution. What is historically clear, however, is that the Illuminati, who were about to cease their existence in 1789, did not play any crucial role in the preparation of the French Revolution.

The links between the Bavarian group and the French Freemasonry were tenuous at best, and in fact many French Freemasons were quite hostile to the Illuminati, and certainly not prepared to accept the leadership of a German order. For a number of political reasons, however, Robison's theories were particularly successful in 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 of the United States, the one we still see on the dollar bill, a symbol of the Illuminati?

Introvigne: No, no matter how many books (and movies) claim it. The pyramid and eye symbol is never found among the Illuminati. Actually it is not even a Masonic symbol, although there are similar symbols in Freemasonry, where a fascination with Egypt was widespread in the 18th and 19th century. The particular pyramid used in the Great Seal was derived from Pyramidographia, a book published in 1646 in London by John Greaves (1602-1652), based on his trip to Egypt. The eye was introduced by Congress Secretary Charles Thomson (1729-1824) -- who was not a Freemason -- in his 1792 speech prior to the seal's Congressional acceptance as a very Christian "eye of the Providence" presiding over the destiny of the United States. As such, it is featured in a number of Christian churches and symbols, quite apart from, and well before, its use within 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-19th century to 1975 the theory of the great Illuminati conspiracy remained the province of fringe "conspirationist" authors, not particularly well-known by the general public. In 1975, a trilogy known as Illuminatus was published by Robert Joseph Shea (1933-1994) and Robert Anton Wilson (born 1932). The three novels were written somewhat tongue-in-check, and Shea and Wilson were part of a neo-pagan group known as the Discordians, worshippers of Eris the Great Goddess of Chaos through "cosmic jokes".

Actually, these are libertarian novels, where Weishaupt does not die in Germany but emigrates to the American British colonies, where he assumes the name of George Washington and establishes the United States. When the US evolves into an authoritarian, repressive state under the secret leadership of the Illuminati, Discordians organize the resistance in the name of liberty, Chaos, and the Great Goddess Eris. It is after Shea and Wilson's novels that the Illuminati start popping up literally everywhere, from Umberto Eco's novel Foucault's Pendulum (1988) to the movie Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001), including countless comics, role-playing games, and miscellaneous pieces of fiction.

Unfortunately, some did not realize the nature of the Illuminatus novels, or even claimed that Shea and Wilson revealed a real conspiracy under the guise of fiction. This theory achieved a certain degree of success among Protestant fundamentalists. Its leading proponent, Milton William Cooper (1943-2001), died in a confrontation with law enforcement officers on November 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 famous fraternal society of Yale's students and alumni? One hears frequently that it is part of the Illuminati…

Introvigne: No relation. The Skull and Bones was established in 1832 by William Huntington Russell (1809-1885), when the original Illuminati were long since dead. Some tenuous similarity may be explained by the fact that both Weishaupt's Illuminati and Russell's Skull and Bones did take inspiration in the many "secret" student societies which existed in German universities since the 18th century. By the way, many stories told about the Skull and Bones are simply tall tales -- they are just another academic fraternity, which includes famous people because famous people do happen to have studied at Yale -- and in 1986 it was finally ascertained that even their famous skull did not really belong to legendary Indian chief Geronimo (1829-1909). The Apaches, to which The Skull and Bones was prepared to give back the skull, declared it unconnected with Geronimo and refused it.

But didn't an Order of the Illuminati exist in the 20th century, too?

Introvigne: Yes. Within the framework of the German occult revival at the end of the 19th century, Leopold Engel (1858-1931) "revived" -- in his own words -- the Bavarian Order of the Illuminati on March 12, 1901. He and his associate Theodor Reuss (1855-1923) -- later to become famous as a sexual magician and an associate of famous British occult master Aleister Crowley (1875-1947) -- were spreading the word that the order had been revived since 1896. Later, they claimed that the revival took place in 1880, but this date is certainly false. As usual, Engel and Reuss told the members of their newly founded order that it was both very old and a legitimate continuation of the Bavarian Illuminati, whose succession had been transmitted from father to son within Reuss' family.

It was claimed that the Illuminati originated in India and Egypt, were behind the Italian Renaissance and post-Renaissance art and science (hence the references to Gian Lorenzo Bernini and Galileo Galilei, quite familiar to the readers of Angels & Demons), and included among their members an impressive roster of historical characters, from Ulysses and Aristotle (384-322 BC) to -- yes, indeed -- Thomas Jefferson. Once again, however, Engel did admit -- in writing -- that this genealogy was mythical and symbolic, and should not be taken at face value. As for the story of a family succession connecting Reuss to the Bavarian Illuminati, Engel later declared that it was a figment of Reuss' imagination.

Who was Leopold Engel, exactly?

Introvigne: An interesting character. He was a member of the inner circle of the loosely organized movement including the followers of the Austrian Christian visionary and mystic Jakob Lorber (1800-1864). In fact, Engel "received" spiritually (today, the word "channelled" would be used) the missing eleventh volume of Lorber's masterpiece The Great Gospel of John, a volume still accepted as a legitimate part of the Lorber canon by many (although by no means all) Lorberians. He was also a prolific science fiction and dime novels writer. In fact, he seemed to have led a double life, keeping his Lorberian and Illuminati activities quite separate, although the Illuminati materials written by Engel do show the influence of Lorber.

Do Engel's Illuminati still exist?

Introvigne: Yes. Although persecuted in Nazi Germany, 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 by Hermann Joseph Metzger (1919-1990), a baker by trade as well as a stage hypnotist, who maintained alive the Order of the Illuminati until his death in 1990, and created an Illuminati center in the Swiss village of Stein, in the canton of Outer Appenzell. A small number of his disciples still live or at least periodically meet there, and they are the only legitimate heirs of Engel's Illuminati. Of course one can join a number of other "Orders of the Illuminati", some of them on-line by paying a fee, but these do not even have the legitimacy of a succession from Engel's organization.

Can we characterize the Illuminati, as Dan Brown would have it, as a conspiracy to destroy the Vatican and its power in the name of reason and science?

As mentioned earlier, the names of famous scientists mentioned as Illuminati are part of mythical genealogies with no historical basis. The Illuminati were mostly recruited among lawyers, governmental officers, and even liberal clergymen, with very few scientists, if any.

Introvigne: As mentioned earlier, the names of famous scientists mentioned as Illuminati are part of mythical genealogies with no historical basis. The Illuminati were mostly recruited among lawyers, governmental officers, and even liberal clergymen, with very few scientists, if any. Weishaupt's Illuminati taught to their new members a rather tame version of the Enlightenment philosophy, quite close to the ideas of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). Weishaupt ostensibly claimed to be against the continuing reactionary influence of the Jesuits (temporarily suppressed in 1773), but not against Roman Catholicism per se. However, those who reached his inner circle discovered a strong anti-clericalism and anti-Catholicism, and some documents openly promoted secular humanism and atheism. Anti-clericalism was also a feature of Engel's order, although not a particularly prominent one. No historical Illuminati order ever boasted that it would "destroy the Vatican", a claim which would seem quite preposterous to anybody who takes into account the real number of their members and the extension of their activities.

Were, or are, the Illuminati a very powerful order?

Introvigne: They certainly aren't powerful today. The main aim of the Stein group, reduced to less than a dozen members, is to survive. Engel's group did not have any particular power. It had a certain cultural influence and initiated two distinguished novelists, Gustav Meyrink (1868-1932) and Franz Spunda (1890-1963), but this was rather limited to the occult subculture itself.

The Bavarian Illuminati were a much more important organization, 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 of Saxony-Gotha (1745-1804), and Duke Charles William Frederic of Brunswick (1735-1806) In 1783 Duke Charles August persuaded two famous protegés of his, Johann Wolfgang Goethe (1749-1832) and Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744-1803), at that time the two leading German intellectuals, to join him among the Illuminati, although both, having been initiated, were never particularly active in the Order. Weishaupt and his close associates, unbeknownst to these princes and luminaries, were able to use the Illuminati for a very real political conspiracy, aimed at seizing power in Bavaria, which came close to succeeding.

Having said so much, it is equally important not to exaggerate the Bavarian Illuminati's role, which was close to non-existent outside Germany, and to remember that by 1790 they had fully ceased to exist. Those who want to persuade us that a secret Illuminati cabal did lead the world from the Renaissance to the 19th century, and continues to do so today, have a very difficult burden of proof, and have never even come close to producing documents or evidence that such is the case.


 


ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Massimo Introvigne, "The shadowy world of the 'Illuminati'." Center for Studies on New Religions (May 2009).

This Q&A has been reproduced with permission from the Center for Studies on New Religions.

THE AUTHOR

Massimo Introvigne is the founder and managing director of the Center for Studies on New Religions, an international network of scholars who study new religious movements. He is an Italian sociologist of religion. Introvigne is the author of tens of books and articles in the field of sociology of religion. He was the main author of the Enciclopedia delle religioni in Italia (Encyclopedia of Religions in Italy). He is a member of the editorial board for the Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion. He is also a consultant on intellectual property rights.

Copyright © 2009 Center for Studies on New Religions