What Exactly Does “Illuminati” Mean?

A few years back, after the release of his short film “Runaway,” rap impresario Kanye West found himself busy quashing rumors that he practices devil worship and is part of the notorious Illuminati. The gossip was sparked by references in “Runaway” to that elusive organization. West expressed confusion about the Illuminati. Is it connected to supposed devil worship? What does the word signify?

The Illuminati refers to several different groups. The name derives from the Latin illuminatur, which means “enlightened.”

Let’s dispense with the Da Vinci Code version of  the group, and move on to reality: The Bavarian Illuminati, a secret society that was founded in 1776, coalesced at the University of Ingolstadt. The group was made up of “freethinkers.” The precise nature of the organization’s activities is a mystery, but some writers believe that the Illuminati (or the Perfectibilists, as they preferred to be called) were the puppeteers behind the French Revolution. This notion itself is worthy of Dan Brown’s imagination.

In modern times, the term Illuminati refers to a conspiratorial organization that is said to mastermind current world affairs. This organization allegedly controls both governments and multinational corporations. These conspiracy thoughts have some unfortunate roots, in the anti-Semitic “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” a 20th century hoax from Russia that claimed to be evidence of a conspiracy of Jews to rule the world.  For an infamously shoddy document, the Protocols have had remarkable staying power and often lurk in the shadows of conspiracy theories of all colors.

The Illuminati has tickled the imagination of popular culture. References to the secret society are found in a wide variety of media, from video games to comic books to, of course, Kanye West’s film.

Are there other popular but vague references (like the Illuminati) you’d like us to clarify? Let us know, and the so-called secret will be revealed.