Alethiometer Studies 101

Alethiometer Cards

To celebrate the launch of The Secret Commonwealth, I thought I would share this deck of alethiometer cards I created. As alethiometers are even rarer in our world than in Lyra’s, I hope these cards can help you hone your skills in their stead.

Click here to download the cards (ZIP)

Printing Your Cards

I recommend taking the PDF file down to your local copy shop and asking them to print the pages double-sided on thick card. They may even be able to cut them apart roughly for you, but you’ll probably need to finish them off at home.

Once you’ve cut your cards to size, you might like to use a dye-based inkpad to colour the edges of your cards. Try the colour out on a scrap of paper first. Gold acrylic paint would also look lovely, but make sure you clamp the cards tightly together, and cover the front and back of the deck so you don’t get paint on the face of the cards.

Alethiometer Cards - Edges

To assemble the box, I recommend using a glue stick. Double-sided tape is very strong, and convenient, but if your folds are slightly off, and the tape remains exposed, it will stick to everything. Forever. Wet glue is also not ideal, as it might cause the card to buckle.

The Alethiometer

The alethiometer was invented in Lyra Silvertongue’s world by a scholar named Pavel Khunrath. Our world’s Heinrich Khunrath was an alchemist; unlike his parallel-world counterpart, he neither invented a truth-telling instrument, nor was he burned at the stake, but he did publish a text titled, The Amphitheatre of Eternal Wisdom, of which Frances Yates writes:

“Except in the title, the word ‘Amphitheatre’ does not occur in the work, and one can only suppose that Khunrath may have had in mind in this title some thought of an occult memory system through which he was visually presenting his ideas.”

However, our world’s Giordano Bruno more closely matches Pavel Khunrath’s career. Bruno was a 16th-century occultist who was eventually tortured and burned at the stake by the Inquisition, and although he doesn’t seem to have developed a memory theatre, as other mnemonists had done, he did create an interesting memory wheel that worked by combination and in this sense bears some resemblance to the alethiometer.

An alethiometer has 36 symbols. From the top clockwise, these are:

  1. Hourglass
  2. Sun
  3. Alpha and omega
  4. Marionette
  5. Serpent
  6. Cauldron
  7. Anchor
  8. Angel
  9. Helmet
  10. Beehive
  11. Moon
  12. Madonna
  13. Apple
  14. Bird
  15. Bread
  16. Ant
  17. Bull
  18. Candle
  19. Cornucopia
  20. Chameleon
  21. Thunderbolt
  22. Dolphin
  23. Walled Garden
  24. Globe
  25. Sword
  26. Griffin
  27. Horse
  28. Camel
  29. Elephant
  30. Crocodile
  31. Baby
  32. Compass
  33. Lute
  34. Tree
  35. Wild Man
  36. Owl

Alethiometer Cards

How to Use the Cards

My favourite way to use the alethiometer deck is the same process as any oracle deck: pick a card and contemplate it. Over the course of the day or days, look out for signs that reveal the message that the card is trying to communicate to you.

If you’d like something more elaborate, you can choose three cards that symbolise your question (as one does with the instrument itself), and then use a random number generator or a pair of dice (by multiplying the numbers) to pick another 3-5 cards to answer your question. Once you have your answer cards, you can either look for the correct meaning on the “ladder” yourself, or choose another random number to determine how many rungs you need to travel. Refer to the HDM wiki for more information.

How to Memorise the Alethiometer Symbols

I was so disappointed that in La Belle Sauvage, Dr. Relph told Malcolm Polstead that she would teach him a trick for memorising the symbols on the alethiometer, and then never did. As far as I know, there’s no particular system behind the ordering on the instruments, so I assume that Dr. Relph was referring to a mnemonic technique.

Here are some suggestions on how you might go about this task.

1 | Linking images

I find this method so quick and effective, that I think you can memorise all 36 images in about 2 minutes. The trick is simply to link the images together in your mind’s eye. The more absurd the connection, the easier it is to remember. For example:

  1. I start with the hourglass with the skull on top,
  2. The skull swallows a sun, which shines through its eye sockets,
  3. The skull “dies”, and the alpha and omega rise above it like smoke,
  4. The smoke is dissipated by the dancing feet of the marionette,
  5. who is unaware of the serpent that is slithering down one of its strings,
  6. the serpent bites the string, and the marionette falls into a cauldron.
  7. With the weight of the marionette, the cauldron plummets like an anchor,
  8. the anchor weighs the stern of a ship, so the angel figurehead rears up,
  9. it’s wearing a helmet too large for it that rattles around…

And so on. Writing these out is a lot more laborious than picturing them. You’ll find that the images come to you in quick succession, and they’ll be surprisingly “sticky”.

The weirder, the better.

Of course, the key to any memory system that’s based on images is to use images that resonate for you. Things that are easy for your mind to conjure up will be easy when you try to reactivate them.

As fast and effective as linked images are, they need a little extra work if you want to remember exactly where they are on the dial of the alethiometer. One way to add this information would be to picture the symbols in the main compass directions. These are:

  1. North – the hourglass
  2. East – the beehive
  3. South – the cornucopia
  4. West – the camel

You can recall these “special” symbols in your mind by changing their colour, making them glow, or adding an extra symbol or image to them (such as a letter or arrow). This was a technique that ancient mnemonists used to distinguish every 5th or 10th memory room they created, which helped to jump forward or backward in a sequence.

Once you have these compass points, the remaining symbols can fit evenly (in groups of eight) into the four quadrants of the alethiometer.

2 | Method of Loci

The method of loci is the ancient mnemonic technique. You might also see it referred to as the “memory palace” or “mind palace” method.

To memorise the alethiometer symbols using the method of loci:

  1. Choose a location that’s very familiar to you. Usually, your home is the best place to start. You can pick a single room, or several rooms, or even use a path you follow frequently around your neighbourhood.
  2. Determine the route you will take through this space. This is important to memorise the sequence of the symbols. For example, you might move through your room in a clockwise direction, starting at the door. Or stand in the middle of the room, as if you were standing in the centre of the alethiometer, and turn.
  3. Find 36 niches or anchor points in your chosen location, to use in storing the 36 symbols of the alethiometer. For example:
    1. Door handle
    2. Bedside table
    3. Lamp
    4. Pillow
    5. Picture of girl
    6. Blind
    7. Mirror
    8. Armchair
    9. Desk
    10. Wardrobe
    11. Shelf
    12. Washbasin…
  4. Place the alethiometer symbols in your 36 locations. Just as with the previous technique of linking images, the more absurd and personal you can make these juxtapositions, the more memorable they will be.

Once you have the alethiometer symbols memorised, you can use them as loci themselves, to hold sequences of information you want to remember. The same is true for any other sequences you recall, such as the zodiac, the players in a sports team, the solfege, a plot structure, etc.

Review

While mnemonic techniques can help you memorise things quickly, the information will soon disappear if you don’t review it regularly. Consider setting up a weekly schedule of card-reading to become truly adept as an alethiometrist.

The Cave

“You’re telling me that when people consult the I Ching, they’re getting in touch with Shadow-particles? With dark matter?”

“Yeah,” said Lyra. “There’s lots of ways, like I said. I hadn’t realized before. I thought there was only one.”

Memorising the meanings of the symbols is another challenge. The chief 3 meanings are usually fairly obvious, but the deeper meanings are subtler and more difficult to discover, especially in our world, where there are no alethiometer books to consult (excepting those by Sir Philip Pullman). When you perform mnemonic exercises like this, the utility of symbols becomes apparent. Imagine trying to remember the abstract concepts behind the symbols without their more “concrete” representations…

Alethiometer Cards

But the alethiometer is only one way to access truths, and one which is based in a symbology that isn’t very familiar to our modern sensibilities. I think a quicker and easier way to access “the cave” is simply to follow your intuition. Quiet your mind to ensure that you’ll hear the answer, and then pose a question. Try yes or no questions, and after some practice you’ll find that the answers come instantaneously, almost before the question.

And, just like Lyra does with the alethiometer, you’ll find that you can sense when the Shadows have more to tell you, or when you’re asking the “wrong” question.

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Further Reading

  1. The Art of Memory & The Rosicrucian Enlightenment by Frances Yates
  2. There’s a chapter in the How to Be the Heroine of Your Own Story course textbook about using mnemonic techniques to make characters more memorable.
  3. How to Read the Alethiometer
  4. Remember It! by Nelson Dellis
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