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Apparently, the Aes Sedai instituted the Three Oaths because they were afraid that, without the assurance that they wouldn't war against normal humans, they would be hunted or wiped out by others.

However, given how impressive their combat magic is, how was that ever a possibility? In the Great Hunt we see damane blowing up/sinking ships for example. If they were fighting from a fortified position (say behind the walls of Tar Valon), I can't see how a military force, without channeling and with only the level of technology and logistics we see in the WOT world, could have any chance at all.

And it seems established that channelers have weakened both in numbers and power over the millennia since the Breaking [until Nynaeve et al. show up], so they would have been more numerous and powerful when the Oaths wee established way back when.

  • Well, this 3 oath idea is imo dumb and plain unrealistic. That being said, this was supposed to be a consequence of war of power and breaking of the world - not that much being afraid but trying to convince people that "we're nice domesticated Aes Sedai" not the guys who'd crush into pieces if you wouldn't play along. Also it didn't work out, people were still mistrustful and Hawkwing hurt them quite significantly. – Mithoron Jul 22 '19 at 17:14
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  • Before they are trained, they would not be a match for a village of angry or scared people.
  • Despite their power, and despite the fact that they were more numerous in the past, if ordinary people sought to war against them, they might win, and establish a death penalty/distrust for anyone developing those abilities--including death for young ladies coming into their power.
  • It's not surprising that this was established when they were more powerful, for a number of reasons. 1) If a system is in place their establishment can control those with the abilities. 2) Without a system that all rulers could get behind, each ruler of a country might establish their own corps of channelers, making war extra devastating for all involved. 3) More power means that there's more for ordinary people to be frightened of, therefore it makes sense that they would cap that to diffuse the situation.
  • They might have sheer power, but they do count on ordinary people for a lot. A fortified position is fine, and magic might sustain them for a while, but they do need to eat--and if they use magical energy to feed themselves, eventually they will run out.
  • There are a lot more ordinary people than there are Aes Sedai.
  • The system is most likely in place not just to protect them from ordinary people, but from each other, even though that's not emphasized. The wheel has turned quite a few times, and it's quite possible that a group of fair-minded Aes Sedai feared what they might become with no limits imposed on them.
  • I see from the comments that you're more wondering why they don't run everything. Perhaps, for a turn or two of the wheel, they did--but they would have to be in every country, they would have to NOT use countries to fight each other (or else this "Empire" would collapse) and so on. The system as it stands now is a product of history and the judgement of people long ago, to whom it made sense at the time. Horrors may have happened such that they imposed this on themselves when the dust settled.
  • Also the damane you mentioned are a cautionary tale--the Seanchan basically make SLAVES of those who can channel because they believe they are too dangerous to allow freedom--this deal keeps the public perception on their side and prevents that from happening.
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Most basic answer would be the Aes Sedai could depopulate the continent and then they would have a depopulated continent. On another level it does not matter how strong a fortification is if you lay siege to it the defenders will starve to death eventually.

To expand however the Oaths ensure that the Aes Sedai can move around and influence society with a measure of trust. Tell no lie is pretty much self explanatory, not making weapons means you cant be compelled to give one group an advantage in some way and not using the power as a weapon unless attacked keeps people honest and prevents an Aes Sedai from influencing an individual with the threat of the power being unleashed upon them.

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    A good point, but - and maybe I should have been clearer in the question - to me the obvious 'alternative' would be the Aes Sedai taking over outright. Once they'd been in charge for a while (a couple of normal-human generations, which isn't very long at all to the lifespan of a non-Oathed channeler) people would just accept it as natural. I mean, look how strong class structures can be on Earth where the upper classes are just normal people. If the ruling class had actual, devastating magic powers... – cometaryorbit Jun 12 '17 at 10:57
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    @constructing - that only works if, like with the Aiel, your people trust you with those powers. If they don't, and the Breaking gave plenty reason not to, an Aes Sedai would just be a walking target no matter what position they have politically. – Radhil Jun 12 '17 at 11:37
  • I think if the Aes Sedai would take over, we'd just have wars between factions of Aes Sedai. The tale of Seanchan actually says the same. – fbence Jul 18 '19 at 12:02
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Basically, the Three Oaths are safeguards to make people trust them. In tSR, when Rand sees through the eyes of the his ancestors, there are people blaming Aes Sedai, male and female, for the Breaking. People wanted blood for blood. Even the Aiel, the servants of Aes Sedai, are victims of mobs just because they had once served the Aes Sedai and therefore they must be bad, too. The Aes Sedai ruled the world before the Breaking, but after they were seen as too dangerous. So the Three Oaths were implemented to make people trust them again. The Aes Sedai are powerful, but Artur Hawkwing still almost wiped them out because he didn't trust them, and he did so without the Power. It's mentioned a million times throughout the series that an arrow can just as easily kill an Aes Sedai as they can kill shadowspawn with the One Power. The Aes Sedai know they don't have the numbers, nor the moral right, to rule by force. So, the three oaths are there as a way to still influence world politics because without the oaths every ruler and their people would just assume Aes Sedai are untrustworthy (and unrepentant) due to nearly destroying the world thousands of years ago.

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The fear of being hunted and wiped out is not the reason for the Three Oaths. As Siuan tells Egwene in Chapter 15 of "The Path of Daggers", the Three Oaths are what makes someone Aes Sedai, not the ability to channel. The Three Oaths make it possible to trust Aes Sedai. Without them, the Aes Sedai would have much less influence, and could not work as united group. The full quote can be found on the page "Oath Rod" of the TarValon.Net Library wiki, in the section Quotes.

The section The Three Oaths has additional information about the meaning and importance of the Three Oaths. In particular it states, that "The Breaking of the World, a time when male channelers went mad and destroyed everything around them, made the Three Oaths necessary to gain people's trust again, however."

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