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At the beginning of The Tombs of Atuan, when Tenar is mock-sacrificed to the Nameless Ones:

A figure in a belted gown of white wool stepped suddenly out of the shadows at the right of the throne and strode down the steps to the child. His face was masked with white. He held a sword of polished steel five feet long. Without word or hesitation he swung the sword, held in both hands, up over the little girl's neck. The drum stopped beating.

As the blade swung to its highest point and poised, a figure in black darted out from the left side of the throne, leapt down the stairs, and stayed the sacrificer's arms with slenderer arms. The sharp edge of the sword glittered in mid-air. So they balanced for a moment, the white figure and the black, both faceless, dancer-like above the motionless child whose white neck was bared by the parting of her black hair.

We learn later that the white figure was Manon the eunuch. So I have two questions:

  1. Who was the black figure? Do we know?
  2. Later on the same page, Le Guin says, "The three highest steps directly before the throne, above the step on which she had knelt, had never been climbed by mortal feet." But she just said that the black and white figures climbed down them. What am I missing?
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The identity of the black figure is unknown, except that it was probably one of the priestesses. The reasons for believing it was a priestess are twofold. Firstly, there is the mention of the "slenderer arms" of the black figure in the quote, which automatically suggests that a slighter, more feminine build; in addition, there are regular mentions of the fact that the eunuchs, like Manon, tend to be overweight (and obesity was historically a common problem among real-world eunuchs, for hormonal reasons). Secondly, there is just the overall sense of maximal contrast in the scene: white versus black and death versus mercy. Male versus female would fit with this theme. The natural guesses as to the identity of the black figure would then be either Thar or Kossil, the two high priestesses of the God-King and the God Brothers, as the senior-most priestesses present.

As to the geometry that allowed the figures to come down from either side of the throne without stepping on the upper three steps, it is not entirely clear. (The above-ground map of the Place of the Tombs does not provide interior details of the Hall of the Throne.) However, the most natural reading (or, at least, the one I came to after several times through The Tombs of Atuan) is that only the part of the highest three steps that is situated in front of the actual throne is forbidden. The steps are wide, extending to the left and right as wide as the entire dais on which the empty throne rests. This means they extend past the width of the throne, and the outer parts of the steps that are not forbidden to humans to use (at least in rituals). This matches the description of the forbidden region of the steps as those "directly before the throne." Thus the portions of the steps that are in front and off to the side are permitted to human feet, when they are carrying out their ritual roles.

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    Possibly the separate section from which the figures emerge is a plateau on top of which the extra 3 steps and the throne sit. It is never mentioned if the 2 figures emerge from the same level as the throne. – Tonny May 31 at 13:36
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"O let the Nameless Ones behold the girl given to them, who is verily the one born ever nameless. Let them accept her life and the years of her life until her death, which is also theirs. Let them find her acceptable. Let her be eaten!"

Other voices, shrill and harsh as trumpets, replied: "She is eaten! She is eaten!"

The figure in black is most likely Thar, priestess of the Twin Gods. The alternative is some unnamed young priestess chosen for the part.

Amongst the priestesses, and now all in black like them, the child walked....

All the signs indicate that this was a mock sacrifice, part of the ritual where Tenar was "Eaten" and turned into Arha, the One Priestess of the Nameless Ones.

The "slenderer arms" are a literary convention for referring to a woman, and the priestesses are all dressed in black.

Very few of the other priestesses in The Tombs of Atuan are named, and which priestess is the "figure in black" depends on whether the role of the rescuer is for someone of high rank or not.

So this leads to the possibility of the figure of Thar or Kossil, the two important priestesses named in the book. Thar is the one teaching Arha the rites of the Nameless Ones, and if anyone would participate in this rite, it would be her. Plus, in the long run, Thar is kinder to Arha than Kossil.

However, "two tall priestesses" guide Tenar to the throne, and just after the mock execution, the figure in black leaps away and then the two priestesses lead Arha away. These are most likely Thar and Kossil. Also, Thar is rather elderly (she dies during Arha's adolescence), and may not be athletic enogh to play the role.

The other named priestess, Penthe, is the same age as Arha and appears much later, so it is not likely to be her.

This all means it's likely that this figure is just some priestess Ms. LeGuin never named.

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For the second question, I interpreted it being a seperate section of steps directly in front of the throne - either a physically separated section, so that the figures in white and black came down the second sets to either side, or the restriction only applied to the section of the steps directly below the throne.

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  • Possibly the separate section from which the figures emerge is a plateau on top of which the extra 3 steps and the throne sit. It is never mentioned if the 2 figures emerge from the same level as the throne. – Tonny May 31 at 13:35

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