The Aiel (pronounced: eye-EEL) are a race of people who live between the "wetlanders" in the Westlands 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 exceptionally skilled warriors; little else is known about them in the wider world. Physically, Aiel can be recognized through their unusual height, characteristic pale eyes and light-colored hair, as well as their distinctive clothing.
Modern Aiel are descended from the Da'shain Aiel, servants of the Aes Sedai during the Age of Legends, and sworn never to do violence (a philosophy known as the Way of the Leaf). During the War of Power, they seem to have acquired the name "People of the Dragon". Some time after the Breaking of the World, however, the Da'shain Aiel slowly disintegrated 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 entrusted to them by the Aes Sedai, and left in order to search for the type of peace they had enjoyed during the Age of Legends; they call this "searching for the Song". To this day, there is distrust and revulsion on the part of modern Aiel for the Tuatha'an - the Traveling People whom Aiel call Lost Ones. They are allowed passage through the Aiel Waste only because the Aiel cannot bring themselves to interact with such a disgraced people. The Tuatha'an themselves, as well as most Aiel, have forgotten the original split, but the Aiel reaction to someone who would abandon their duty and never defend himself is enough, now.
Taking up the spear
The remaining group of Aiel themselves split when four members of their group killed in self-defense while rescuing two daughters of their group who were taken by raiders. One member of the group, Lewin, grabbed a spear while one of the raiders was attacking him and ultimately killed the raider in self-defense. When they returned to camp and the others found out that Lewin had killed a raider, they told the group members to hide their faces and that they were no longer Aiel because they had broken the Covenant and killed, even though they still refused to use a sword. Over time, more and more Aiel joined those who would kill in self-defense, leaving only the Jenn Aiel to hold to the Way of the Leaf.
Into the Waste
These two groups remained together, the violent Aiel defending the Jenn Aiel, despite their protestations, and this compound group made their way across the Spine of the World into what would become known as the Aiel Waste. They were helped during their journey by a tribe of people who would later become the nation of Cairhien. This help came in the form of water freely given, the first time since the Breaking the Aiel encountered a people who did not try to attack them or cheat them. This may be the origin of the Aiel pledge of water oaths and is the reason the Cairhien would eventually be given safe passage across the Waste. 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 no trace of the Way of the Leaf remains in their culture other than a total unwillingness to touch a sword, and the forced pacifism of gai'shain. The Aiel Wise-Ones and Clan chiefs do believe, however, that they were sent into the Three Fold Land as punishment for failing the Aes Sedai.
Not much is known about the Aiel by the outside world. Any wetlanders (as they call those who live to the west) are killed on sight; only peddlers, gleemen and Aes Sedai are given free passage. Tuatha'an 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.
The Aiel once allowed a fifth 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. Four clans of outraged Aiel boiled out of the Waste to bring back Laman's head. Led by a charismatic Tardaad clan chief named Janduin, the expedition was complicated when several "wetlander" armies mistook the Aiel for an invasion force and started fighting back. The Aiel cut them to ribbons, chasing King Laman across the nations, and by 978 NE they had pursued him all the way to Tar Valon. The Battle of the Blood Snow, as it was later called, saw the Aiel finally succeed in killing King Laman; the next day, they went home. Wetlanders call this the Aiel War; the Aiel called it justice. Since then, however, the Aiel have been even more hostile to the Cairhienin than to other wetlanders, calling them "treekillers" and "oathbreakers."
The Aiel have a number of cultural practices that are quite strange to outsiders. For example, women frequently become soldiers and fight alongside men. In addition, the taboo against nudity in practical settings is much weaker amongst the Aiel than in some cultures, much to the astonishment of many wetlanders. On the other hand, their capacity for public display of affection is almost nonexistent, and they are mortified to watch lovers kiss or even embrace. The Aiel moral code is called ji'e'toh, an Old Tongue word which roughly translates to "honor and duty" or "honor and obligation"; it codifies the Aiel responses to honor and shame (which is essentially synonymous with obligation). Outsiders consider it labyrinthine--one Aes Sedai who studied it for a month reportedly ended more confused than she started--but the Aiel live and die by it.
One of the most bizarre convolutions of ji'e'toh concerns the taking of gai'shain, "those sworn to peace in battle". Aiel earn honor and prestige for deeds in battle--or accumulate shame by misdeeds--but killing an opponent earns the least honor; "any child can kill". What earns the most honor is touching the opponent while they are holding a weapon, but without harming them, much like the practice of counting coup performed by the Native Americans. An Aiel so shamed is considered to have toh -- obligation -- to the person who touched them, and will march straight to that person and demand to be made gai'shain, at which point they don white robes, become that person's peaceful servant in all but name for a year and a day, and swear not to touch a weapon, or even defend themselves, during that time.
Becoming gai'shain is a way to answer for toh; it is totally voluntary and can be used to atone for non-battle-related shaming as well. Gai'shain are not slaves, and any wetlander who suggests it is soon straightened out. Conversely, Aiel are horrified and confused by the concept of "servants", people who work throughout their life in the service of others.
Wise Ones, children, pregnant women, women with a child under the age of ten, and blacksmiths cannot be taken gai'shain. Exact "ownership" of the gai'shain is a variable matter; though each gai'shain swears only to one person, they can be and are often instructed to obey commands from other people as well. On occasion a man will allow himself to be taken gai'shain by a Maiden he wishes to marry in an attempt to get her to fall in love with him during his time of servitude. The Maiden never does because they would never look at a gai'shain as a potential mate, and usually "teach them to sing", something Aiel men do not do unless a battle hymn or dirge for the slain.
Though only men can become clan chiefs, only women can hold property. The owner of any given roof (house) or holding (settlement) is the roofmistress, and she must give permission to step under her roof. Only women, likewise, can become Wise Ones. Only women can ask for marriage; a man may accept or decline, but may not ask, although he may make his interest known in other ways, such as giving a gift. The Maidens of the Spear mistake Rand's gifts to Aviendha as gifts proclaiming his interest. Along the same lines, a man who notices a woman eyeing him is supposed to ignore it until she vocalizes her interest.
Aiel practice polygyny, a form of polygamy in which a man has multiple wives (though not all Aiel men do), but not polyandry, in which a woman has multiple husbands. Wives of the same husband are referred to as sister-wives and share a close relationship. All parties must be in agreement for a polygynous marriage.
A water oath is an agreement traditionally between members of the Aiel that is sworn over water. It is considered an extremely serious oath and is rarely broken.
When a group of Aiel take one of the holds of an enemy clan in the Waste, by custom they carry away one fifth of all it contains, excepting only food.
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). Aiel warriors also affiliate themselves with various warrior societies, of which there are twelve: Mountain Dancers, Thunder Walkers, Stone Dogs, Brothers of the Eagle, etc. The only society to accept women is the Far Dareis Mai, the Maidens of the Spear; their members 'marry' their spears and are forbidden to take men into their lives on a permanent basis without forfeiting membership.
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 multidirectional 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 to avoid participating in clan feuds.
Clans and septs
The thirteen Aiel clans (including the ancient Jenn Aiel), and their known septs.
- Main article: Aiel 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, described below)
Rhuidean is a small city located in the Aiel Waste. After the Breaking of the World, the Jenn Aiel and female Aes Sedai who accompanied them to escape the insane male channelers, built the first and only city there, which they named Rhuidean. The city was never fully inhabited, and was abandoned after the gradual extinction of the Jenn Aiel; however, it is still used for raising clan chiefs and Wise Ones.
Since Rand al'Thor destroyed the Power-woven barrier surrounding Rhuidean, and tapped into an underground water supply to form a lake on the edge of the city, Rhuidean is now being slowly populated and rebuilt. If this effort is successful, it will be the only city in the entire Aiel Waste.
- Main article: Wise Ones
Aiel women who can channel are not sent to the White Tower; instead, they remain among the Aiel and become Wise Ones. However a woman can become a Wise One without having the ability to channel. Some Aiel women are also skilled in dreamwalking Tel'aran'rhiod, the World of Dreams; they too become Wise Ones (even if they cannot channel). Wise Ones undergo a grueling testing period, culminating in a trip to Rhuidean; inside there are ter'angreal which administer the final test.
Aiel clan chiefs must also undergo a test by traveling to the center of Rhuidean, four Wise Ones must say yes for them to do so. They come out marked with an iridescent dragon tattoo around one forearm--or do not come out at all. Women receive no such marking. Two of three who go, do not return; what they learn in Rhuidean is too much for some to bear as they learn the full complete history of the Aiel. Eventually, it is told, a man will emerge from Rhuidean at daybreak with two dragons, one on each forearm: a Car'a'carn, a chief-of-chiefs, He Who Comes With The Dawn.
There is also a Car'a'carn, a chief of chiefs, spoken of in prophecy, who will lead the clans and destroy them:
—The Shadow Rising, Chapter 34
Of late, Rand al'Thor has been proven to be that man. The arrival of He Who Comes with the Dawn has caused a number of upheavals to the Aiel way of life, manifest in a number of ways, such as:
At least one of the twelve clans, the Shaido, has splintered off from the Aiel proper; its now-deceased leader, Couladin claimed to be the real Car'a'carn and led the Shaido across the Dragonwall into Cairhien. His claim was bolstered by markings on his arms identical to those Rand received in Rhuidean; Asmodean placed them there to sow dissent. His claim has been supported posthumously by his wife Sevanna, although to what continuing effect remains to be seen.
At Alcair Dal, Rand also revealed the secret he learned in the Rhuidean test, the secret that drove two of three Aiel to insanity: that the Aiel had once been the Da'shain Aiel, served the Aes Sedai, and followed the Way of the Leaf. To a culture that lives and dies by its oaths, the news that they were all oathbreakers was devastating, and many Aiel have since succumbed to the resulting "bleakness." Some take on permanent gai'shain white, in hopes of paying off a debt that can never be repaid. More forsake spear and cadin'sor and attempt to live the Way of the Leaf in the wetlander cities--or among the Tinkers, whom Aiel call Lost Ones--as their ancestors would have. Others simply disappear. And some of them run to join the Shaido, hoping for a return to an earlier, simpler time.
Because of this, the Shaido ranks are swelling, but these runaways, having abandoned their clan and sept, are scorned by the Shaido, and their warrior societies will not accept them. This resulted in the unofficial creation of a thirteenth warrior society, peculiar to the Shaido: the Mera'din, the Brotherless, those who have lost everything (we have not seen any Maidens of the Spear make this decision, as yet).
At present, the heads of the other eleven clans remain loyal to al'Thor, but as battle and the bleakness take their tolls, the number of loyal Aiel diminishes daily.
The probable future of the Aiel is a dark one - based on Aviendha's vision in Rhuidean, the Aiel will break Rand's peace with the Seanchan due to their captured Wise Ones not being released (from having been made damane) after an agreed year of service. The Aiel will have drawn all other states into war with the Seanchan as well, resulting in a likely total conquest of the whole continent by the Seanchan.
Also by edict of Seanchan Empress, all Aiel were to be hunted down like animals till last one for their fight against the empire, and by first part of Aviendha's vision, they were.
However, the possible future for the Aiel discussed above came about as a direct result of Rand al'Thor's decision to exclude the Aiel from the Dragon's Peace. Including the Aiel as a police force in the Dragon's Peace may very well avert the destitute future of the Aiel that Aviendha witnessed.
- See also: Aiel terms
The language of the Aiel is derived from the same Old Tongue as known to the rest of the known world in the series, though with a particular stress on maintaining many of the traditional terms of importance, such as titles and legal terminology. In particular, the following terms seem to be fairly common throughout the series when used by Aiel.
It should be noted that all Aiel in the books also speak the common language of the world, while maintaining terminology and syntax from the Old Tongue where it is practical.
The twelve Aiel clans are similar to the Tribes of Israel. There is a thirteenth clan, not counted among them: the Jenn Aiel, who built the city of Rhuidean, a repository of Aiel history, equivalent to the Hebrew Levites.
The system of clan and sept is also one that is a parallel of old Scottish and Irish clans and septs. Jordan has said that he thought it would be fun to have the Aiel as a desert culture but with Irish heritage, thus the Aiel are physically as a people modeled After Irish people this is evident through their pale skin, and light hair and eyes. The Aiel are further connected to the Irish through the Tuatha'an.