"It was very like a clock, or a compass, for there were hands pointing to places around the dial, but instead of the hours or the points of the compass there were several little pictures, each of them painted with the finest and slenderest sable brush."
—Description of the alethiometer[src]

The alethiometer, nicknamed the symbol-reader, was a compass-like device that was used to communicate with Dust and find truthful answers to one's questions. Only six alethiometers were ever made.[1]


Square alethiometer
Square alethiometer case

The name of the object comes from the Greek aletheia (truth) and meter (measure).


The alethiometer was invented by Pavel Khunrath in Prague in the 17th century. It was intended to be used for astrological purposes, such as measuring the influences of the planets.[2] The experimental theologian discovered that an alloy of two particular rare metals could be used to create a needle that pointed towards the truth. The first alethiometer consisted of this needle suspended over a celestial chart showing the signs of the zodiac, with Khunrath asking questions and receiving responses.

Khunrath later improved the alethiometer by using symbols from the memory-theatre to give himself a wider array of icons to draw upon. As his research went on, he realised that the meanings of the symbols already existed and that he discovered them rather than inventing them.

When Emperor Rudolf II died in 1612 and Emperor Frederick succeeded him, research deemed occult was outlawed. Khunrath was burnt at the stake for heresy in the name of the Magisterium, but some of his instruments and notes survived. Scholars in more tolerant countries continued his work, naming his device the alethiometer.[3]



Lyra Silvertongue holding and reading an alethiometer

Reading an alethiometer required particular skill and training. Although Lyra Silvertongue was able to do so intuitively in her youth, after puberty she had to relearn how to do it. Most scholars made use of reference books in order to decipher the meanings of the alethiometer's 36 symbols. The Bodleian Library in Oxford had such literature.[4][5]

To read the alethiometer, the user first directed three needles to lie over certain symbols on the face of device to create a question. Then, the user held this question in their mind, without grasping at the answer, but being content not to know. At this point, the fourth needle swung into action, moving from one symbol to another to create the answer.


Lyra holding the alethiometer

Lyra being handed the alethiometer

A person who was capable of reading an alethiometer was known as an alethiometrist. Known alethiometrists are:


The alethiometer had thirty-six symbols, each of which had countless meanings. Each symbol has its own article detailing its meanings.

Behind the scenesEdit


Nl 02
HDM Wiki has 21 images of alethiometers.


  1. Northern Lights, Chapter 4
  2. Northern Lights, Chapter 10
  3. Random House - History of the Alethiometer (Archived 20 March 2015)
  4. La Belle Sauvage, Chapter 4
  5. 5.0 5.1 Northern Lights, Chapter 2
  6. Twitter - Tweet by @PhilipPullman
Alethiometer symbols
Alpha and OmegaAnchorAngelAntAppleBabyBeehiveBirdBreadBullCamelCandleCauldronChameleonCompassCornucopiaCrocodileDolphinElephantGlobeGriffinHelmetHorseHourglassLuteMadonnaMarionetteMoonOwlSerpentSunSwordThunderboltTreeWalled GardenWild Man
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