(Excerpted from United Symbolism of America by Robert R. Hieronimus, Ph.D.)
William Barton’s original motto suggestion over his eye was Deo Favente. Latin teacher Charles Thomson changed it to Annuit Coeptis, which means basically the same thing. Seal historians have traced it back to Virgil’s Aeneid book 9, line 625, and Georgics book 1, line 40. In both cases, the phrase was Annue Coeptis, which was translated as an appeal to the Roman god Jupiter to favor these undertakings or enterprise. David Ovason has made a convincing case that Thomson changed the conjugation to the third person, so it would read Annuit (or “[He] favors”) instead of Annue (for “[please] favor”) in part so that the phrase would have 13 letters. It does seem as though they were trying to reflect 13 as many as 13 times in the Great Seal for the ostensible reason of celebrating the 13 united colonies or states. As we discuss in the chapter on the flag, it is probable that some of the Founding Fathers would have been familiar with the ancient symbolic associations with the number 13 and themes of renewal and rebirth. It’s likely they called such attention to the number not only for the 13 states, but also to link America to the theme of rebirth. They saw our new nation’s undertaking as being born anew out from under the shackles of Britain’s tyranny. Annuit Coeptis does NOT translate to “Announcing the birth of,” as you will see in many fundamentalist-conspiratorialist writings mistranslating this symbol. Thomson specifically states that the radiant eye of Providence works together with this motto, Annuit Coeptis. There can be no doubt that the intention of this device is to symbolize the eye of God looking favorably over the new American experiment.
Novus Ordo Seclorum = “The New American Era”
The other half of the motto refers to those undertakings our founders believed God was looking upon so favorably. They called it the Novus Ordo Seclorum, which translates as the “New Order of the Ages.” Thomson indicated that this motto works together with the date underneath the pyramid, 1776. “The date underneath is that of the Declaration of Independence, and the words under it signify the beginning of the new American era, which commences from that date.” Seclorum is a poetic form of Seculorum or Saeculorum meaning “of the ages,” or “generations,” or “centuries.” Again, the peculiar spelling may have been chosen for numerological purposes, as Ovason surmises. He shows that a combination of the 17 letters in Novus Ordo Seclorum with the nine digits in the Roman numeral used to depict 1776 (MDCCLXXVI) produces a total of 26. 26 is twice 13, and Ovason uses these as the final two to achieve 13 thirteens in the Seal.5 Seclorum does NOT translate to “secular,” as many fundamentalist-conspiratorialists would have you believe. Using their version of specious Latin translations, fundamentalist-conspiratorialists will tell you that Annuit Coeptis and Novus Ordo Seclorum translate to “Announcing the undertaking (or birth) of a New Secular (or World) Order.” They want you to be afraid that the Founding Fathers were infiltrated by Satan-worshipping Illuminati who now control this country through the Freemasons. For proof they say all you need to do is notice how many people and organizations use symbols similar to the reverse of the Great Seal with eyes or triangles in their logos. This argument, of course, fails to recognize that these symbols are and have always been universal and used by all kinds of people. Until the last few decades when this anti-American-symbol conspiracy took hold, these symbols have been interpreted on the surface to mean pretty much the same thing by all the different groups who used them: the eye is God, the rays are illumination or enlightenment from the Divine, the triangle is the Trinity, the pyramid is ancient strength.