When Moiraine first walked into the Winespring Inn in The Wheel Of Time’s opening episode, the room went silent at the sight of an Aes Sedai. While the residents of the Two Rivers know all about these women (or at least what the stories tell them about these women), those sitting at home probably don’t, and they probably have a lot of questions. For one thing, what’s up with the color code? For another, why were a bunch of them dressed in red chasing down some guy? And what’s all this about the Aes Sedai being women-only? Why can’t men be Aes Sedai?
Warning: Spoilers follow for The Wheel of Time Season 1, Episode 1-3, along with a whole lot of exposition that gets explained over the first three books of The Wheel of Time. The first three episodes of The Wheel of Time never directly explain the history of the Aes Sedai, but there are hints. A long time ago (3,482 years to be exact), this world was very different. It was a technological marvel with machines that flew, vehicles that could cover leagues in an hour, devices that could communicate over vast distances in an instant. Aes Sedai ruled this world, but these were men and women who worked together using the two halves of the One Power.
But they got greedy. The Aes Sedai looked for ways to increase their power. And in doing so, they accidentally freed the Dark One from his prison. An apocalypse broke out as the Aes Sedai fought to contain him and drive him back. One male Aes Sedai, known as The Dragon, Lews Therin Talmon, led 100 male Sedai against the Dark One in The Last Battle and won.
But as they defeated the Dark One, he touched the male half of the One Power, tainting it. His touch reached into the mind of every male Aes Sedai, driving them out of their senses. They ran wild, murdering entire villages, draining seas in one place and drowning cities in others, splitting land here, creating volcanoes and mountains there. Known as “The Breaking of the World,” this incident only ended when the female Sedai put down every male. Since then, no male Aes Sedai has been allowed to survive for fear of this all happening again.
Let’s break it down a bit further:
The One Power
What is the One Power, exactly? Like Star Wars’ The Force or Shadow and Bone’s small science, this power is the kind of science that’s indistinguishable from magic. The ability to touch the One Power and to wield it is known as “channeling.” On one level, what the book describes when an Aes Sedai “channels” is molecular manipulation. Aes Sedai take a droplet from the air and replicate it until it fills a glass of water or speed up molecules until fire sparks. They create a mirror around them to reflect the world and disappear or open a gateway and travel through time and space.
But how men and women interact with it is different. Men have a kind of power they might forcefully seize. Known as Saidin, it is represented by the black half of the yin-yang, called the Dragon’s tooth. The polar opposite is the women’s half, saidar, the white half of the yin yang, or “the teardrop.” To control it, women surrender to it, allowing it to flow through them like a river.
Today’s Aes Sedai
Once upon a time, saidin and saidar kept each other in balance. But with saidin tainted, women have saved the world safe by “gentling” any man who can channel. (“To gentle” or “to still” is to cut a man or woman off from the power. It usually leads to a deep depression and the channeler taking their own life.) Since the breaking, the taint eventually drives every last male channeler out of their minds — seeing things that are not there, hearing things that are not real, reacting to threats that do not exist.
To protect the rest of the world from the men who can channel, the Aes Sedai have grown secretive, especially their leader, known as The Amyrlin Seat. Rumors abound about what these women can and cannot do, as the memory of their abilities has faded through the generations. That secrecy has bred fear, and the Aes Sedai themselves have changed in response. Once, people knew they could trust Aes Sedai. No more. Moiraine mentions the Aes Sedai adopted the Three Oaths to show the world they were no threat. These oaths (to speak no word that is untrue, to make no weapon with which one man may murder another, and to never to use the One Power as a weapon except against Darkfriends and Shadowspawn) lock an Aes Sedai down when she takes them, binding her. And worst of all, they don’t really work, since most people don’t believe the Aes Sedai follow them anyway.
When an Aes Sedai first comes to the White Tower and is given a chance to train, she is known as a Novice. (Entering the White Tower is referred to as “signing the Novice Book.”) Novices are treated little better than servants, given menial tasks to prove they understand their role. Aes Sedai, after all, means “They Who Serve” in the old Tongue.
When a Novice is deemed ready, she is taken to a device known as a ter’angreal, a tool imbued with the One Power. Known as the Three Rings, she walks through it, seeing visions of the past, present, and future she’s giving up to join the White Tower. When she emerges, she is considered an Accepted and given her Aes Sedai ring, the serpent eating its tail.
When her Accepted studies are complete, she is handed the Oath Rod and takes the Oaths, ascending to the rank of a full Aes Sedai. She is also then given the choice of which Ajah to join. Each of these societies within the Aes Sedai system has its own code.
- Red Ajah: Warrior Ajah who are dedicated to “gentling” any man who can channel
- Green Ajah: Battle Ajah, who prepare for the coming of the Dragon Reborn
- Gray Ajah: Diplomatic Ajah, who usually attach themselves to queens and politicians
- Brown Ajah: Historian Ajah, who study and preserve the past
- Yellow Ajah: Healer Ajah, doctors and nurses
- Blue Ajah: Justice-focused Ajah, who also have a huge eyes-and-ears network
- White Ajah: Philosopher’s Ajah, more interested in theory than action
The Amyrlin Seat, when she is raised, leaves her Ajah behind and is considered to be of both all Ajah and none. (And if you ask, there is no such thing as the Black Ajah, but Darkfriends are everywhere in these times.)
Since Aes Sedai can’t use their powers to protect themselves, they have developed a system of Warders. Warders are soldiers dedicated to protecting and serving Aes Sedai. The Aes Sedai bonds the Warder using the One Power, creating a psychic link between them. Warders gain physical stamina and strength, the ability to sense Darkfriends easily, and an ability to resist evil. The Aes Sedai gains a person intrinsically linked to her to compel (to an extent) to do as she commands.
With Aes Sedai being only women, nearly all Warders are men. There are some legendary women who have been Warders, but they are few and far between. (The heteronormativity of this world is very thorough.)
That does not necessarily make their relationship a heterosexual romance. Although some Aes Seadi sleep with their Wardens (Greens especially), many view them as employees, friends, or spiritual companions. Some will bond multiple Warders and have a personal army, while some Aes Sedai bond none: Reds never have Warders, for example, and Whites rarely do.
The Wheel of Time Season 1 continues with new episodes every Friday on Amazon.