One of the great mysteries of UW-Madison is the university’s seal, a vaguely creepy-looking design showing the rays of the sun over an upturned eye, and the rhyming motto “Numen Lumen.” Sometimes, when the UW is feeling particularly pretentious, it includes the Latin phrase Universitatis Wisconsinensis Sigillum, which means “the seal of the University of Wisconsin.” The symbols look so odd and cryptic that people will believe almost anything you tell them about our sigillum: it’s Masonic, it’s gnostic, it’s ophthalmic. And since its origin is shadowed in the mists of time, you’d have a hard time proving anyone’s claims wrong.
One thing you may not know: old Numen Lumen here wasn’t the UW’s first seal — a fifty-cent piece was. Or at least so said early professor James Butler. It seems that back in 1848, when the UW’s first paperwork was drawn up, no one had a seal to make it look all official. So somebody — history does not record who — took out a coin and pressed its back side down on the documents, leaving the impression of a trusty bald eagle.
By 1854, the board of regents decided this was no longer good enough. It asked then-UW president John Lathrop to procure a seal, and evidently he drew up its design himself. It seems that he came up with the motto “Numen Lumen,” combining one of the Latin words meaning God and one of the Latin words meaning light. Various translations have been proposed — “God is the light,” “God our light,” etc. — but no one involved with the seal’s creation ever said exactly what was meant.