Not long after classes commenced at the UW in 1849, newly minted chancellor J.H. Lathrop went to work on a design for a formal university seal. What he came up with raised eyebrows: an upturned eye surrounded by converging rays and a cryptic Latin motto, Numen Lumen. Lathrop offered little insight into what this meant, and over time, the standard interpretation has become “God is our light,” which feels out of place at a public university.
Past attempts to explain Numen Lumen say that Lathrop chose the motto to reflect the “religious beliefs and values of Wisconsin citizens.” But there’s no record of this being Lathrop’s intent, and in fact, Numen Lumen is half of a longer Latin phrase — Astra Castra, Numen Lumen — that was popular in intellectual circles in the mid to late 1800s.
The UW’s first professor of Latin and Greek, James Butler, also strongly suggested that Lathrop intended the motto as an intellectual rather than spiritual rallying cry for the university. On the faculty from 1858 to 1867, Butler was a passionate advocate for studying the classics in order to inform and improve contemporary culture. In 1904, a year before his death, he wrote an article for the Wisconsin Alumni Magazine examining the motto’s faux-antiquity origins. Butler believed that Lathrop originally read it, as he had, in a text by the 17th-century English Earl of Balcarres, which included the first documented use of Astra Castra, Numen Lumen.
Butler uncharitably described the adoption of the Latin-sounding motto as an attempt by a then-provincial university to elevate its academic image. But he also believed the already-waning phrase was worth keeping. “A university which thinks itself old enough to borrow the costume of most ancient institutions and to lavish their hoods and badges with a profusion undreamed of where those insignia originated and are still ‘as thinly placed as captain jewels in the carcanet,’ should not quite cast off the time-honored words with which those decorations are still so widely conferred and associated,” Butler wrote. “Words are things, and were never more precious than today.”
As for the best way to translate the motto, considering its probable agnostic intent? “[While] lumen is easy — it’s just light, lamp — numen is one of those weird Latin words with a lot of meaning,” says translator M. S. O’Brien, who has written about the UW’s motto misinterpretation. “If you were an ancient Roman, and you went up a hill or down into a hollow, and you felt something holy or scary or beautiful, you would say that you were sensing the numen of the place.”
So perhaps Numen Lumen could mean something more like “our spirit is light,” or more metaphorically, “our spirit is knowledge.” While we’ll never know exactly what Lathrop was thinking, we bet he and Butler wouldn’t mind the modernization — or at least a lively debate toward a fresh translation.
Learn more: Numen Lumen is a prominent part of the UW’s longest-lasting seal, but it wasn’t on the first.