The Illuminati have found fame through best selling novels and movie adaptations, but the secret society has been the subject of speculation and rumours for over two centuries. Who started it all? A Bavarian named Adam Weishaupt, a professor of natural and religious law, started the Illuminati in the 18th century. Weishaupt was born in Ingolstadt in Bavaria (now part of Germany) in 1748. A descendent of Jews who had converted to Christianity he was orphaned at a young age. His uncle ensured he was educated properly and enrolled him in a school run by the Jesuits. Weishaupt became a Professor at the University of Ingolstadt. He got married and had children. As a young boy Weishaupt had been an avid reader of books written by French philosophers. This was radical as at that time Bavaria was a very conservative, Catholic country.

As Weishaupt grew he became disillusioned with what he read. Believing that religion could not offer him what he wanted, Weishapt sought another way to enlightment. He wanted to 'illuminate' the way forward, a way that would change the way in which Europe functioned and how states were run. At this time Freemasonry was very popular. Weishaupt considered joining them. As Weishaupt read more and more about Freemasonry he decided not to join. He read books such as The Mysteries of the Seven Sagas of Memphis and the Kabbala and decided to form his own secret society.

In forming the Illuminati Weishaupt was clear he was not against religion, and said it was the way it was practised and enforced upon people that he disagreed with. He wrote his thinking offered freedom from the prejudices of religion and cultivated virtues of society, and that it would lead people to consider universal happiness. To achieve this a state free of class, rank and riches needed to be established. On May 1 1776 the Illuminati met for the first time. The meeting was in a forest close to the town of Ingolstadt. There were only five men there but by torchlight they agreed on rules that would govern the Illuminati. Three levels of membership were created, starting with: novices, then minervals and finally the illuminated minervals. The word minerval was used because Minerva was the Roman goddess of wisdom . By 1782 the Illuminati numbered possibly 600. Members included important figures such including the banker Mayer Amschel Rothschild. Nobles, politicians, doctors and writers including Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Numbers had grown to between 2,000 and 3,000 by the end of 1784.

In 1784 the Bavarian authorities learned of the Illuminati. They seized documents that revealed the Illuminati's secret rituals. An edict was issued in June of that year forbidding any society not authorized by law. In March 1785 the Iluminati were specifically banned. Members were arrested and secret documents such as descriptions of how to carry out abortions, write with invisible ink, and defending suicide and atheism were found. By August 1787 membership invited the death penalty. Weishaupt lost his Proffesorship and was banished. He spent the rest of his life in Gotha, Saxony, where he taught philosophy.

Books such as Dan Brown's Inferno and the Da Vinci Code and Umberto Eco's Fucault's Pendulum have added to continued fascination with the Illuminati.