The eye of Sauron is upon you. At least, that’s what it feels like when you meet the gaze of the university’s Numen Lumen seal. The symbol, and its accompanying motto, are, in fact, meant to bring to mind a higher power.
Numen Lumen is a Latin phrase that has a few possible translations, including “God is the light,” and “God our light.” If you prefer a more universal or spiritual interpretation, John Lathrop, the UW’s first chancellor, had a slightly different take: “The divine within the universe, however manifested, is my light.”
You may be wondering why the UW uses this seal if no one truly knows what it means. The Numen Lumen motto was the first official seal of the UW, chosen on February 11, 1854, to replace the 50-cent piece that was simply a stand-in when the paperwork establishing the UW was signed in 1848. Lathrop based the design of the Numen Lumen seal not on Tolkien-esque villains or illuminati imagery, but on the dominant religious sentiment of the people of Wisconsin at the time.
Broad interpretations of Numen Lumen allow the motto to transcend and even connect people of any and all belief systems. No matter what guiding power an individual Badger reads into Numen Lumen, the UW community is united in the goal to build a brighter future. UW president Conrad A. Elvehjem outlined these goals alongside the Numen Lumen seal in a 1962 welcome flyer:
“Our University’s purpose is threefold: To teach the young people of today and to help them become the good citizens and leaders of tomorrow; to improve our daily life and lot through research; and to serve the state and its people.”
Though the university now opts to use its W crest more heavily than the somewhat unnerving eye with sunrays shooting out of it, Numen Lumen remains an important part of the UW’s tradition. The symbol can be found on campus across a variety of images, marketing materials, and buildings throughout UW–Madison’s history.