Wheel of Time
In Robert Jordan’s fantasy series The Wheel of Time, the Aiel (pronounced /aɪˈiːl/) are a race of people. They live between the “wetlanders” in the west and the Sharans in the east, in a desert which the Aiel call the Three-Fold Land and which everyone else calls the Aiel Waste. They have earned a reputation as skilled warriors; little else is known about them in the wider world. Aiel can be recognized through their height, characteristic pale eyes, and red or blond hair. Physically, they are reminiscent of the Celts; culturally, of Native Americans, Frank Herbert’s fictional Fremen, and to some extent the people of Arabia and feudal Japan. Their short spears with sword-like blades, their three-pronged encircling tactics and their outrunning of horses are all derived from the Impi warriors of the Zulu. Their division into clans and septs—with fierce loyalty—mirrors Gaelic culture in Ireland and Scotland.
Modern Aiel are descended from the Da’shain Aiel, servants of the Aes Sedai during the Age of Legends, and sworn never do harm in their passing, known as the Way of the Leaf. During the Breaking of the World, however, the Da’shain Aiel turned from one people into three: today’s Aiel (which means “dedicated” in the Old Tongue), the Tuatha’an (also known as Traveling People or Tinkers), and the Jenn Aiel (literally, True Dedicated). The split between the Aiel and Tuatha’an was acrimonious; certain members of the Aiel refused to continue the task of transporting a cache of angreal and themselves to a place of safety.This led to them leaving the main group in order to search for the ‘Song’, since before the Breaking the Aiel had sung with the Ogier to raise crops, and many believed finding this song would restore the peace they had enjoyed during the Age of Legends. The remaining group of Aiel themselves split when some members of their group killed in self-defense, (though in doing so, they used only instruments which had practical uses, namely a cookpot, a spear, knives—and refused to use a sword) while retrieving kidnapped women. Over time, more and more Aiel joined those who would kill in self-defense, leaving only the Jenn Aiel who would still hold to the Way of the Leaf. The two groups remained together, the violent Aiel following at a distance and defending the Jenn Aiel, and this compound group made their way across the Spine of the World into the Aiel Waste. They were helped, during their journey, by members of the people who would later become the nation of Cairhien. In the waste, the Aiel prospered while the Jenn Aiel dwindled; the last Jenn died hundreds of years ago, leaving only a holy city, Rhuidean.
Today, the Aiel have all but forgotten their ancient ways; only their leaders remember that they once served the Aes Sedai, and few trace of the Way of the Leaf remains in their culture other than a total unwillingness to touch a sword, and the forced pacificism of gai’shain. The Aiel tradition of veiling their faces before “dancing the spears” may also indicate the Way of the Leaf has not been completely forgotten. When the Aiel were parted from the Jenn Aiel, the climate was dry and dusty, and all Aiel wore dustveils. As the Aiel who had committed violence were being ejected, one boy’s mother commanded him to “hide his face,” as she did not want to see her son’s face “on a killer.”
Not much is known about the Aiel by the outside world. Any wetlanders (as they call those who live to the west) entering the Waste are killed on sight; only peddlers, gleemen and Aes Sedai are given free passage. Tinkers can also move freely in the Waste if they so choose, as no Aiel will go near them. Aiel have a reputation for being vicious fighters, and “black-veiled Aiel” is a common epithet for belligerence. Their reputation as fighters was known by Artur Hawkwing, after a failed invasion, and by the Borderlanders who they still raid occasionally.
The Aiel once allowed a fourth class of wetlander to traverse their lands: the citizens of Cairhien, in honor of the help they had given the Aiel during their wandering. The Cairhienin were allowed to travel through the Waste to Shara, where the Cairhienin were able to obtain precious silks, spices and other luxury goods. The Aiel also gave Cairhien a small tree: Avendoraldera, a cutting of Avendesora, the Tree of Life. Unfortunately, several centuries later, a Cairhienin king with more ambition than sense, Laman Damodred, cut down Avendoraldera to make himself a throne. The Aiel, outraged, boiled out of the Waste to bring back Laman’s head. Four of the twelve Aiel clans went, led by the Tardaad clan chief named Janduin, but the assassination-in-force was complicated when several wetlander armies mistook the Aiel for an invasion force and started fighting back. The Aiel cut them to ribbons, and by 978 NE they had pushed the multinational force all the way back to Tar Valon. The battle there, known as the Battle of the Shining Walls, saw the Aiel succeed in killing King Laman; the next day, they went home. Those who do not know the intentions of the Aiel in killing Laman insist that at the Battle of the Shining Walls, the multinational army won over the Aiel. However, the Aiel had crossed the Spine of the World just to kill Laman, and once that was achieved, they returned to the Aiel Waste. Those who know better realize that the Aiel could have taken Tar Valon had they wished, but had no desire to control a wetlander city. Wetlanders call this the Aiel War; the Aiel do not see it as a war – they simply went to punish an oathbreaker. Since then, however, the Aiel have been even more hostile to the Cairhienin than to other wetlanders, calling them “treekillers” and “oathbreakers.”
They also have a fearsome reputation amongst the Trollocs, who refer to the Waste as ‘The Dying Ground’, after a failed invasion during the Trolloc Wars.
The Aiel are organized on several different levels. There are twelve Aiel clans, each of which has a clan chief; clans are further divided into septs, and septs subdivide into holdings which are individual settlements; each clan and sept also has a central hold. (As a parallel, clans are like countries, septs are like states or regions within the country, holds are like cities, with central holds corresponding to capitals.) Aiel warriors also affiliate themselves with various warrior societies (which cross sept and clan boundaries), of which there are twelve, as seen below. The lines of loyalty amongst clan, sept and society are tangled; but, roughly, allegiance to one’s warrior society trumps clan allegiance. This appears counter-intuitive until one remembers that the clans are in a state of almost perpetual twelve-way warfare; since Aiel from any clan can join any society, and will not raise spear against fellow society members, this allows open lines of diplomacy between all clans at all times. (Some Aiel even sojourn with their societies away from home to avoid participating in clan feuds.) An Aiel greeting is, “May you find shade this morning.” Another is, “I see you N.” implying that the other cannot (or will not) make a sneak attack.
In addition to their various clans and septs, many Aiel in the series belong to various warrior societies. Far Dareis Mai (Maidens of the Spear) Shae’en M’taal (Stone Dogs) Aethan Dor (Red Shields) Seia Doon (Black Eyes) Far Aldazar Din (Brothers of the Eagle) Rahien Sorei (Dawn Runners) Sha’mad Conde (Thunder Walkers) Hama N’dore (Mountain Dancers) Sovin Nai (Knife Hands) Cor Darei (Night Spears) Tain Shari (True Bloods) Duadhe Mahdi’in (Water Seekers) Mera’din (the Brotherless)
Aiel women who can channel are not sent to the White Tower; instead, they remain among the Aiel and become Wise Ones. Some Aiel women are also skilled in walking Tel’aran’rhiod, the World of Dreams; they too become Wise Ones (even if they cannot channel). Wise Ones do not have to channel or dreamwalk, though. Wise Ones undergo a grueling testing period, culminating in a second and final trip to Rhuidean; inside there are ter’angreal which administer the final test.