At the dawn of time, a deity known as the Creator forged the universe and the Wheel of Time, which spins the lives of men and women as its threads. The Wheel has seven spokes, each representing an age, and it is rotated by the One Power, which flows from the True Source. The One Power is divided into male and female halves, saidin and saidar, which work in opposition and in unison to drive the Wheel. Those humans who can use this power are known as channelers; the principal organization of such channelers in the books is called the Aes Sedai or ‘Servants of All’ in the Old Tongue.
The Creator imprisoned its antithesis, Shai’tan, at the moment of creation, sealing him away from the Wheel. However, in a time called the Age of Legends, an Aes Sedai experiment inadvertently breached the Dark One’s prison, allowing his influence to seep back into the world. He rallied the powerful, the corrupt and the ambitious to his cause and these servants began an effort to free the Dark One fully from his prison, so he might remake time and reality in his own image. In response to this threat, the Wheel spun out the Dragon, a channeler of immense power, to be a champion for the Light. In the Age of Legends the Dragon was a man named Lews Therin Telamon, who eventually rose to command the Aes Sedai and their allies in the struggle against the Dark One’s forces. After a grueling ten-year war, which began a century after the Dark One’s prison was breached, Telamon led his forces to victory in a daring assault on the site of the earthly link to the Dark One’s prison, and was able to seal it off. However, at this moment of victory the Dark One tainted saidin, driving male channelers of the One Power insane. The male channelers devastated the world with the One Power, unleashing earthquakes and tidal waves that reshaped the planet. Their leader, Lews Therin, killed his friends, his family, and finally himself in his insanity. Eventually, the last male channeler was killed or cut off from the One Power, leaving the human race all but destroyed and only women able to wield the One Power safely. The Aes Sedai reconstituted and guided humanity out of this dark time. Mankind now lived under the shadow of a prophecy that the Dark One would break free from his prison and the Dragon would be reborn to face him once more, raining destruction upon the world in the process of saving it from the Dark One.
Over the next three and a half thousand years, the human race returns to a level of technology roughly comparable to that of the Medieval era (although cultural institutions and traditions seem closer to the 19th Century), with the difference that women enjoy full equality with men in most societies, and are superior in some. This is put down to the power and influence of the female-only Aes Sedai spilling over into everyday life. Several major wars have ravaged the main continent since the defeat of the Dark One, such as the Trolloc Wars, when the surviving servants of the Dark One tried to destroy civilization once more but were defeated by an alliance of nations led by the Aes Sedai; and the War of the Hundred Years, a devastating civil war that followed the fall of a continent-spanning empire ruled by the High King, Artur Hawkwing. These wars have prevented the human race from regaining the power and high technology of the Age of Legends, and also left humanity divided. Even the prestige of the Aes Sedai has fallen, with their shrinking numbers and the emergence of organizations such as the Children of the Light, a militant order who hold that all who dabble with the One Power are servants of the Shadow. The nations of the modern era are able to unite against the warrior-clans of the Aiel, who cross into the western kingdoms on a mission of vengeance after they suffered a grievous insult, but are too divided to work effectively together in other areas.