'His Dark Materials' HBO: What is "Dust"? The biggest mystery, explained.

The most important substance in the universe is a sign of things to come.

In the first episode of HBO’s new alt-reality fantasy series, His Dark Materials, James McAvoy’s Lord Asriel makes a startling discovery in the Arctic that could shake the very foundations of society. The big reveal happens when he shows off two photographs proving the existence of an imperceptible flakey substance that gathers around adults and the Northern Lights. So WTF is “Dust” and why does everybody care so much?

Dust is a crucial sign of what’s to come. It is life. It is death. It is magic. It is everything in His Dark Materials.

Confused? Things come across a bit weird in Episode 1 of HBO’s His Dark Materials series. So here’s your primer on what to know about Dust in the show for things to make a bit more sense.

Very light spoilers for His Dark Materials below.

his dark materials
Lord Asriel in the Arctic taking some very dangerous photos.

On his expedition to the north, Lord Asriel used alternative emulsion methods of developing photographs, and later in the premiere, he shows a crowded room of scholars at Oxford the controversial results. In one photo, a concentration of Dust imperceptible to the human eye gathers around an adult in the photograph but not on the child also featured. In another photo developed the same way aimed at the aurora borealis in the sky, an entire city is visible shimmering through the Dust.

Together, these photos tell us two things: Dust gathers around adults only, and Dust is intrinsically connected to the very fabric of reality. The aurora represents an area where charged particles and solar rays interact with the atmosphere in a way that makes the matter in one world thin enough to be perceived from another. Together, these revelations prove the existence of a multiverse and a certain kind of nature magic that undermines the rigid theocracy in control of society in Lyra’s world.

The Magisterium is a rigid theocratic government that deems anything that undermines its authority as heresy. Non-religious scholars still maintain a certain amount of autonomy in this world, most evident in something called “scholastic sanctuary,” a twist on religious sanctuary from the real world. This is why Asriel left Lyra at Oxford when she was just a baby. There, she’s been safe from the Magisterium.

This is hardly a spoiler to admit considering how clearly Episode 1 telegraphs it, but there’s a connection between a child’s shapeshifting daemon, the moment of maturity, and the gathering of Dust.

A daemon is a human’s soul living outside their body, and in one’s youth it’s fluid and everchanging. Once a person matures, that daemon takes a final, permanent form. We witness the coming of age ceremony of a Gyptian in the middle of the episode when his daemon permanently becomes a hawk. This demarcation is important because it also means that Dust begins to gather around people after this point. After the first episode, that’s all anyone needs to know.

Want to dig even deeper? Here’s what Dust means in the books, and some of what what we’ll eventually learn on the show.

his dark materials
Lyra and her best friend Roger.

The term “Dust” comes from an alt-reality Biblical passage in Lyra’s world: “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” (Genesis 3:19) The idea is that Dust is a universal part of human existence, as inescapable as death, and perhaps intrinsically linked to it.

The Magisterium regards Dust as a sign of Original Sin, but it’s perhaps more accurate for us to compare it to the Force in Star Wars, a mystical energy attracted to sentient life that is itself conscious. Dust was created when consciousness first evolved into existence. Dust is particularly attracted to anything with or created by consciousness, including objects created by people and actual people. It gathers in greater concentration around a matured consciousness, such as any person in Lyra’s world after their daemon assumes its final form. But it’s also what generates the powerful connection between a child and their daemon.

In simpler terms, anything that seems remotely spiritual or magical is connected to Dust, including Lyra’s alethiometer, the titular Golden Compass that lends its name to the first book in the trilogy. Alethiometers are able to communicate directly with Dust to learn the truth of any question asked. Normally, people have to study many years to interpret the subtle nature of the communication, but Lyra has an uncanny intuitive skill with the device.

This will become increasingly more important as the story evolves and the series begins to explore the implications of a myriad of worlds coexisting while connected by this mysterious force.


His Dark Materials airs Monday nights on HBO at 9 p.m. Eastern.