the alethiometer


How to Read the Alethiometer

Any question can be expressed by a combination of three symbols, using either the primary or any of the subsidiary meanings. For example, Should I marry now, or wait for a year? would be expressed by means of the bird (third meaning, marriage, because birds mate for life), the hourglass (tenth meaning, a year), and the horse (fifth meaning, constancy). The inquirer moves each of the hands in turn until it points to one of the three symbols.

But that is only the physical part of the process. The other part is mental. The inquirer must endeavor to hold in his or her mind a clear picture of where each of the meanings comes in its range. Evoking the image of ladders with rungs extending downward is sometimes advised by skilled practitioners of alethiometry. Picture three ladders side by side, each rung being one meaning in the range, and mark distinctly the rungs corresponding to the meanings you intend - for example, by imagining a bright light shining on them, or ribbons tied around them, or by covering them in gold leaf. The inquirer must hold that image firmly, without losing it for a moment, while setting the hands in position.

Once the question has been asked, the needle will begin to move around the dial, and the inquirer must pay close attention to its movements. It may stop at any number of symbols: two, or three, or many more. The inquirer must note carefully not only which symbols it stops at but also how many times it stops there, because the number of times corresponds to the place of the intended meaning in the symbol's range.

For example, the question above might receive an answer in which the needle stopped at chameleon three times, walled garden seven times, baby five times, madonna nine times, sword six times, bull two times, ant ten times, and bird three times.

By noting the pauses carefully and consulting the books of readings, the inquirer would discover the following meanings: "wait", "allow", "fail", "love", "not", "strong", "sustain", and "marriage."

So much for the external process; the inward process would require the reader to put these meanings together correctly and come to the answer: 

Wait and allow your love to cool and die away, because it is not strong enough to sustain marriage.

The alethiometer moves to answer immediately, and usually answers only once. It is clear that a reader must be unusually quick-witted as well as diligent and perceptive, and that only long practice and deep familiarity with the symbol ranges, acquired over many years, can bring about accurate interpretation.

In short, the alethiometer supplies the semantic content of a message, and the mind of the inquirer supplies the grammatical connections between the individual elements. Only when the two work together does the full meaning become apparent.


Definitions of Symbols of the Alethiometer

Death, change ...
Authority, truth ...
Alpha and Omega
Process, inevitability ...
Submission, grace ...
Guile, natural wisdom ...
Cauldron (crucible)
Craft, achieved wisdom ...
Steadfastness, prevention ...
Protection, narrow vision ...
Productive work
Sweetness, light ...
Mystery, the uncanny ...
The feminine, worship ...
Knowledge, vanity ...
The soul (the dæmon)
Spring, marriage ...
Christ, sacrifice ...
Mechanical work
Diligence, tedium ...
Power, honesty ...
Faith, learning ...
Autumn, hospitality ...
Greed, patience ...
Fate, chance ...
Resurrection, succor ...
Walled garden
Innocence, order ...
Sovereignty, fame ...
Fortitude, the Church ...
Watchfulness, courage ...
Journeys, fidelity ...
Summer, perseverance ...
Charity, continence ...
Crocodile (caiman)
Rapacity, enterprise ...
The future
Malleability, helplessness ...
Mathematics, science ...
Rhetoric, philosophy ...
Shelter, fertility ...
Wild man
Wild man
The masculine, lust ...
Winter, fear ...

Each symbol has one primary meaning and a range of subsidiary meanings, which is potentially infinite. However, the subsidiary meanings are all related by association to the primary meaning. So, for instance, the sun symbolizes (1) day, because it is during the day that we see the sun. It also symbolizes (2) authority, because the sun is the most powerful thing in the sky. Another meaning is (3) truth, because by the sun's light we can see the true forms of things. The sun range continues:

(4) kingship (or political authority of any kind), because the king is the sun around whom the court or the state revolves;

(5) a particular king or leader (in the context of a query to the alethiometer, it will be obvious which one is meant);

(6) Phoebus Apollo, and thus rationality and the intellect, as opposed to the baser emotions;

(7) archery (Apollo's bow and arrows) and thence

(8) the power of administering punishment at a distance, including

(9) plague;

(10) the creative arts (through Apollo's patronage of the nine Muses);

(11) the laurel (through Apollo's love for Daphne), and thence

(12) honor, prizes, fame, through Apollo's awarding of the laurel wreath;

(13) divination and prophecy (through the Delphic Oracle);

(14) pastoral husbandry (Apollo's flocks and herds), and thence

(15) a particular farm, and thence

(16) a particular beast;

(17) homosexual love (Apollo's love for Hyacinthus);

(18) gold...

And so on, infinitely. No one has ever reached the end of a symbol range, even though some have been explored to the depth of a thousand or more meanings.

Each symbol is thus capable of expressing a multitude of ideas, but each subsidiary meaning carries with it some quality of the primary one, even when it may appear to coincide with a meaning in another range. For example, the meaning "sea" appears both as number seven in the dolphin's range and number four in the anchor's, but it signifies different things in each. In the dolphin range, it means "the sea as wide, nourishing home", and in the anchor range, the sea as danger and unpredictability." A skillful reading of the alethiometer would have to take into account not only the meaning itself, wherever it comes within the range, but also the significance lent it by the range itself.


History of the Alethiometer

The first alethiometer was constructed in Prague during the reign of Rudolf II by a scholar named Pavel Khunrath. He was trying to record the influences of the planets according to a method that combined classical astrology with the memory - theater system of symbolic images developed by such scholars as Giulio Camillo and Giordano Bruno. Prague, under Emperor Rudolf II, was a hotbed of alchemy, and Khunrath himself had made experiments, discovering in the process an alloy of two rare metals that had mysterious quasi-magnetic properties - that is, it responded like the needle of a compass. But whereas a compass needle points to north, this pointed to truth.

He suspended a needle of this alloy over a celestial map, and found that he could influence the way it moved through questions he framed in his mind. At first, his dialogue with the needle was limited to the range of symbols in the zodiac, but he soon adapted the memory theater (a mnemonic device used by Renaissance philosophers) to provide himself with a much richer range of images. In order to communicate more effectively, he invented the method of indicating both the question and the answer by means of hands, like those of a watch, and a needle, like that of a compass.

Khunrath soon discovered that the meanings in the symbol ranges already existed, in some mysterious way, independent of his inventing them. He seemed to be discovering them, not making them up, as a mathematician discovers truths about numbers that are hidden deeply in the natural number system. He wrote down the first few dozen meanings, but got no further, for in 1612 Emperor Rudolf II died, and the new emperor, Frederick, was a fanatical opponent of this kind of occult philosophy. In the name of the Magisterium, Khunrath was burned at the stake.

However, a few of his instruments survived, together with a copy of his book of readings. Other scholars in freer countries developed the art of interpretation after his death. It was one of these later scholars who coined the name alethiometer, from the Greek words for truth and measure.