Massimo Introvigne, director of the Turin-based Center for Studies in New Religions, went into detail about the group mentioned in Brown's new novel, in this interview posted by the center.
Q: "Angels & Demons" by Dan Brown is the latest best-selling 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 Web site 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 U.S. 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 U.S. intelligence agencies."
Actually, Dan Brown seems to take the continuing existence of Illuminati even more seriously than his character Robert Langdon.
Q: 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.
Q: 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, 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.
Q: 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 1784-1787, 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.
Q: 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.
Q: 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, who died in A.D. 651, although he confused him with Yadzegerd II, who died in A.D. 457 and was 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.
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.
Q: 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, were 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 XV century are regarded as "hopelessly stupid" -- in the words of famous French historian Régine Pernoud -- 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, Saint 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.
Q: 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 Father 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 complicate question of the relationship between Freemasonry, 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 was accused of being a member of the dreaded sect.
Q: 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 -- 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.
Q: Didn't many always accept the theory, however, that the Illuminati were leading the world or, at least, the U.S.?
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 and Robert Anton Wilson.
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 Goddes 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 U.S. 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"  to the movie "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider" , 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, died in a confrontation with law enforcement officers on Nov. 5, 2001. He refused to pay taxes to the U.S. government, claiming it was controlled by the Illuminati.
Q: 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, including 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. The Apaches, to which The Skull and Bones was prepared to give back the skull, declared it unconnected with Geronimo and refused it.
Q: 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 "revived" -- in his own words -- the Bavarian Order of the Illuminati on March 12, 1901.
He and his associate Theodor Reuss -- later to become famous as a sexual magician and an associate of famous British occult master Aleister Crowley -- were spreading the word that the order was being 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 rooster of historical characters, from Ulysses and Aristotle 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.
Q: 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 11th 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 lead a dual life, keeping his Lorberian and Illuminati activities quite separate, although the Illuminati materials written by Engel do show the influence of Lorber.
Q: 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.
Pinkus initiated 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 online by paying a fee, but these do not even have the legitimacy of a succession from Engel's organization.
Q: 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?
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. Weishaupt ostensibly claimed to be against the continuing reactionary influence of the Jesuits, but not against Roman Catholicism per se.
However, those who reached his inner circle discovered a strong anticlericalism 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 would take into account the real number of their members and the extension of their activities.
Q: Were, or are, the Illuminati a very powerful order?
Introvigne: They certainly aren't any 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 and Johann Gottfried von Herder, 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 succeed.
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 never even came close to produce documents or evidence that such is the case.