An alethiometer is a fictional device which appears in Philip Pullman’s fantasy series, His Dark Materials. The device bears a superficial resemblance to a compass, and is used to answer questions asked of it, albeit in a rather cryptic manner.
The alethiometer is a circular, compass-like device. On its outer rim it has thirty-six different small images, which represent various concepts. It has four hands, similar to those found on a compass or a clock. Three of these hands are set by the person reading the alethiometer, to pose the question to the device. The fourth hand then moves of its own accord, stopping for various periods of time at different images to spell out an answer to the question.
According to the Master of Jordan College, who gives an alethiometer to the protagonist Lyra, there were only six alethiometers ever made. The Church apparently collected, and seemingly destroyed, most of these. It is implied that the alethiometer given to Lyra is the only one still in existence outside of the Church’s grasp. The Church itself also has at least one remaining alethiometer, as well as a person who can read it.
The alethiometer is one of a number of objects in the world of His Dark Materials which requires a particular mental state to work properly. This state consists of holding a question in one’s mind, but letting the mind drift somewhat as well. If the dials are properly set, and the correct mental state is achieved, the free pointer begins swinging around the alethiometer. According to Lyra, the number of times the pointer circles the device affects the meaning of the symbols it stops on. So on the first pass the hourglass may represent Time, while on the third pass it may represent Change.
The symbols which appear on the alethiometer are: an Hourglass, the Sun, the Alpha and the Omega, a Marionette, a Serpent, a Cauldron, an Anchor , an Angel, a Helmet, a Beehive, the Moon, the Madonna with Child, an Apple, a Bird, a Loaf of Bread, an Ant, a Bull Head, a Candle, a Horn of Plenty, a Chameleon, a Thunderbolt, a Dolphin, a Walled Garden, a Globe, a Sword, a Griffin, a Horse, a Camel, an Elephant, a Crocodile, a Baby, a Geometrical Compass, a Lute, a Tree, a Bestial Man, and an Owl.
Reading the alethiometer is generally agreed upon to be a very difficult task. It requires many decades of training, and even once well-trained the alethiometrist appears to need to make reference to books that help outline what the various symbols mean at different depths. Asking a single question can take a trained alethiometrist hours, and is extremely exhausting.
The protagonist of the books, Lyra, seems to be able to read the alethiometer with ease, however. She quickly learns how to read the symbols, and seems to have an innate understanding of what the patterns mean. She is able to ask questions of the alethiometer and answer them within a few minutes or less, without expending too much energy. This appears to have something to do with her innocent relationship to the mysterious particles known as Dust, however, which seem to be what drive the answers of the alethiometer. When Lyra eventually matures at the end of the series, and her relationship to Dust changes, it is made apparent that she has lost her instinctual ability to read the alethiometer, although with practice and perseverance she can learn to read it in the same way others do.