Your Bones for Bricks and Blood for Mortar
“The Left Hand of Darkness” opens with a keystone set in with “a mortar of ground bones mixed with blood” (p.10). Estraven explains that, in older times, these were human but now they use animal ones instead.
The practice of sacrificing humans in construction was customary before and during the Dark Ages. In Greece, a folk ballad about the “Bridge of Arta” tells the tale of how a Chief Engineer entombed his wife in the foundations of the bridge. In Germany, infants were entombed in the foundations of castles and churches as protection against bad weather, war or the Devil. In England, the old nursery rhyme “London Bridge Has Fallen Down” -variations of which can be found in Ireland, France and Germany- addresses the very same issue. It is also believed that the Picts used to bathe the foundation stone of their remarkably strong castles in human blood as an offering to the Earth spirits.
There is often a religious element in these stories, for the human sacrifice usually aims to either appease some spirit or protect against some malicious presence (e.g. the Devil). The Karhidian custom of using human blood and bones as mortar seems to share this religious basis. In the Orgota creation myth, one of the three ice mountains says “I bleed”(p.190) and, then, uses this blood along with matter from the sun to make the land. Though different religions are dominant in Karhide and Orgoreyn, the resemblance between the two civilizations on this subject is uncanny.
However, blood and bone evoke yet another religious image: that of communion. The faithful partake of the body and blood of Christ who sacrificed himself in order to offer humans redemption. Similarly, Estraven’s sacrifice marks and opens the doors to a new era for Gethen. Thus, the novel ends as it begins; with a keystone set with blood and bones.