Aes Sedai and the Role of the Female Shaman
Aes Sedai and the Role of the Female Shaman
By Catt Heckathorne
The Aes Sedai of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time are an odd breed of women indeed. Marked as being “different” by an ability called channeling, they are advisors to rulers and their leader, the Amyrlin Seat, is often said to be able to make kings and queens kneel to her. Yet just as often they are stigmatized, labeled as witches because their ability is not understood, and in at least one country these women are outlawed. Perhaps further understanding of these women may be achieved if they are viewed not as witches or women in powerful positions, but as traditional shamans.
The name Aes Sedai appears a clear cousin of the Celtic Aes Sidhe (Eyes Shee), a faerie folk of Ireland whose name means “People of the Hill” (Conway 2001:96). This is certainly appropriate, as the Aes Sedai are trained in the White Tower, located in Tar Valon. And it is in Tar Valon where they learn to master their ability to channel, and become a figure very similar indeed to that of a shaman.
“Shamanism,” writes Victor Turner, “tends to predominate in food-gathering cultures, where the shaman most frequently performs a curing rite for the benefit of one or more patients and within the context of an extended family group. Shamanistic rites are ‘non-calendrical,’ or contingent upon occasions of mishap and illness” (Turner 2008:148). Aes Sedai do not offer their powers on a “calendrical” basis, but rather as they are needed. While shamans are sometimes viewed as individuals who practice spirit mediumship, they must, however, learn to control the ability: “’he is rather the vessel or vehicle of the transhuman entity” (2008:149). This is, one might argue, how the Aes Sedai control the One Power/the True Source through drawing it into themselves, a process called channeling.
In a culture in south-central Chile, called the Mapuche, the shaman is most commonly a woman (Faron 1964:139), called a machi. But while the Aes Sedai are often viewed with suspicion, “it is because of her ability to cure illness and prevent death that people place their faith and trust in a machi. She always inspires a good deal of awe on the part of her clients and people in general …” (1964:138). Aes Sedai are sometimes seen by their own people, especially those in the rural hinterlands, as notoriously shifty. And a common warning claims that “an Aes Sedai never lies, but the truth she tells may not be the truth you wanted to hear.” This is a repeated notion throughout The Wheel of Time.
Yet the power of the Aes Sedai is not to be ignored, however widely the women are not trusted. In many instances they have saved lives whether through their use of the One Power as a weapon or as a mechanism to Heal injuries that otherwise would bring death. Still, they are widely viewed with suspicion because their power, unlike what is seen with the machi, is not understood.
In Jamaica, a practice known as Balm is also carried out extensively by women. These women received their abilities of healing and spiritual mediumship “generally during a severe illness” (Wedenoja 2008:231). This is linked to an interesting, recurring thread in cross-cultural healing powers. Indeed, the idea that a severe illness can bequeath shamanic or otherwise mystical powers onto a person is not solely a monocultural phenomenon—that is, a phenomenon that is culture-bound, belonging to a single culture. Rather, shamanic powers bequeathed to individuals during an illness seems to be a cultural universal—a phenomenon occurring around the world in many cultures. And Robert Jordan himself makes use of such an illness in The Wheel of Time: When a person first learns to channel without the aid of a teacher or guide, the first incident of true channeling is followed by a brief but seemingly severe illness!
According to Barbara Tedlock, an anthropologist who became initiated as a shaman into the K’iche’ Maya of the Guatemalan highlands, the K’iche’ Maya practice a holistic healing method that blends spiritual, physical, and psychological healing. “Such healing,” she writes, “depends on emotional and bodily contact between healer and patient” (2005:14). This statement seems to be directly linked to the Healing ability, done through channeling, amongst the Aes Sedai. The channeling process represents the emotional contact, and the Aes Sedai must lay her hands on the individual who requires her Healing. Tedlock also writes that “in many cultures shamans call up energy from the depths,” which is exactly what the Aes Sedai do when they touch the One Power. Shamans even appear to have their own version of the Pattern, which is woven by the Wheel of Time: “Shamans believe in a ‘web of life’ in which all things are interdependent and interconnected; there is a cause-and-effect relationship between different dimensions, forces, and entities of the cosmos” (2005:20-21).
While many readers might not agree with this interpretation of the Aes Sedai, one cannot ignore that an extraordinary amount of the mythos and history surrounding the Aes Sedai appear to be derivatives of the power and work of female shamans in our own world. Often, in order to fully understand a culture or a subculture, the researcher must investigate the culture’s supernatural world and beliefs concerning that world, and how these relate to everyday life. And quite often, if this is done, the culture does not appear quite so odd after all.
D.J. Conway, Celtic Magic, (St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn Worldwide, 2001).
L.C. Faron, Hawks of the Sun: Mapuche Morality and Its Ritual Attributes, (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1964).
Barbara Tedlock, Ph.D., The Woman in the Shaman’s Body: Reclaiming the Feminine in Religion and Medicine, (New York: Bantam Books, 2005).
Victor Turner, “Religious Specialists”, in Magic, Witchcraft, and Religion: An Anthropological Study of the Supernatural, 7th ed., ed. Arthur C. Lehmann, Pamela A. Moro, and James E. Myers (New York: McGraw Hill, 2008), 147-154.
William Wedenoja, “Mothering and the Practice of ‘Balm’ in Jamaica”, in Magic, Witchcraft, and Religion: An Anthropological Study of the Supernatural, 7th ed., ed. Arthur C. Lehmann, Pamela A. Moro, and James E. Myers (New York: McGraw Hill, 2008), 230-238.