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A-Z of His Dark Materials: Alethiometer

In the book series His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman, one of the things the plot is centered around is the alethiometer. The alethiometer is described as a “large watch or a small clock”, that’s made up of a “thick disc of brass and crystal”.

Alethia means “truth” in Greek. Translated, it literally means “truth-meter”. It is used to communicate and answer questions using the mystical particles of Dust, which acts as an absolute truth.

It has three winding wheels, with three short hands that can be adjusted to point to any of the tiny 36 symbols that are painted on the devices. Each of the 36 symbols have subtle meanings that can be used to interpret the answers to the questions. Only six alethiometers have ever been made.

Each of the symbols have a primary meaning and subsidiary meanings that can have up to twenty known variations. This, of course, makes interpreting the alethiometer extremely hard to read.

The alethiometer is interpreted depending on how the hands land on the symbols and in what order. It’s an extremely powerful object that only a handful of other people can read. Everyone else has to consult these massive tomes and books in order to even guess at what it might be saying.

The first alethiometer was made by an experimental theologian in Prague, named Pavel Khunrath. He discovered by using the alloys of two rare materials, he could create a device that pointed towards the truth.

Unfortunately, in our world we have not ever discovered such a device. But, Philip Pullman did pull from items of inspiration in other theologies to create the alethiometer device.

One such item that can be considered an inspiration is the liahona from the Book of Mormon. According to the Book of Mormon, the word “liahona” is means “compass”. It first appeared as a large brass ball that operated as a type of compass, with two symbols, to the prophet Lehi outside of his tent.

Although it did not work as a magnetic compass, in the Book of Mormon its said that the liahona used one spindle to point the direction that his party should travel.

The alethiometer remains one of the most interesting and symbolic items of the His Dark Materials universe.

So much so that I may have actually bought one for myself. Was it worth it?


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