What is the Bene Gesserit? The Witches of ‘Dune’

I read Frank Herbert’s novel ‘Dune’ in 1984, shortly before the original David Lynch film was released. At age 14, I hadn’t read a lot of science fiction. I was totally blown away. The depth of world-building and interwoven plot lines was awe-inspiring. If you are looking forward to the new Denis Villeneuve 2-film version of ‘Dune’, you should read the book.

The novel provides the rich background that will make the movie a more rewarding experience. If you need a quick overview of the novel, check out my Simple Guide to ‘Dune.’

Herbert’s novel is an achievement of the imagination, but it also includes an intimidating collection of unfamiliar names and terminology. What is the Gom Jabbar? What is the Bene Gesserit? Shai Hulud? You get the point. In this article I’m going to explore the Bene Gesserit sisterhood in Frank Herbert’s novel ‘Dune.’

Bene Gesserit

The Bene Gesserit is an ancient school of mental and physical training primarily for female students. The Bene Gesserit sisterhood is the female religious order associated with this school. Think Catholic Sisterhood meets Jedi Order.  These powerful women train their minds and bodies through extreme conditioning to develop superhuman abilities. They wield religious, political and social influence to achieve their objectives.

They work in the shadows to manipulate the Imperial leadership and the feudalistic Great Houses of the Imperium to achieve their objectives. The sisterhood uses secrecy to carry out their selective human breeding program and other clandestine goals. They are often referred to as witches because of the mystery and fear that surrounds their advanced abilities. Graduates of the Bene Gesserit training are referred to as ‘Reverend Mothers.’

History

The Bene Gesserit training school was established thousands of years ago following the Butlerian Jihad. This great revolt was a crusade against computers, thinking machines and conscious robots. During this period the Sisterhood developed their training methods, explored the use of narcotics, and built a black op syndicate known as the ‘Missionaria Protectiva.’ The well-known Litany Against Fear and a bibliography of all the great secrets of the most ancient faiths was produced during this time.

The Bene Gesserit once denied that they were a religious organization. However, they secretly operate as a religious order through their organization, symbolism, training, rituals and teaching methods. Among other covert strategies, the Sisterhood has installed some of their trainees as wives and concubines in the Great Houses.

Their Ultimate Goal

The Bene Gesserit are focused on attaining power and influence to shape the future of humanity. They are entirely self-serving, every action calculated to meet their desires. In order to accomplish this end, the sisterhood plays a long game. A very long game.

Their prime objective is to produce a human being referred to as the “Kwisatz Haderach.” By using a breeding program spanning thousands of generations, their goal is to produce a super-being. This person will have extraordinary human intelligence and the ability to see into the future.

Special Abilities

Bene Gesserit training includes self-control, diplomacy, and superior combat skills. They can control their own physiological functions such as conception, aging and ability to determine the sex of their prenatal child.

The Bene Gesserit Sisterhood practice “the minutiae of observation.” They learn to notice tiny details of people and their environment that a common person would miss. This hyper-awareness gives them the power to uncover secrets and reach conclusions that are invisible to everyone else. By detecting slight variations in breathing, heart-rate and speech patterns a Bene Gesserit can determine a person’s emotional state and manipulate it. They can also easily determine if someone is lying based on careful observation of body language, voice inflections and skin temperature.

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The Voice

The Bene Gesserit practice a powerful form of suggestion known as ‘the Voice.” Using subtle changes in the voice, one trained in this skill can control a person by issuing commands to the subject’s subconscious mind. This powerful mind-control is invisible to the subject and compels them to carry out the order without resistance.

Other Memory

Reverend Mothers have a unique ability called ‘Other Memory.’ All the collective egos and memories of a Reverend Mother’s female ancestors are present in her consciousness. These thoughts are passed down through ‘genetic memory,’ or memories that are present at birth in the absence of any sensory experience. Though the Reverend Mother’s ego is in charge, the combined ego/memories interject themselves in moments of emotional stress.

Spice Dependence

The Bene Gesserit order rely on the use of the spice melange, a mind-expanding drug. This addictive substance expands the mind, extends life and provides extraordinary powers, but withdrawal of the spice is fatal. The spice is the most valuable substance in the universe because it is only found on one planet, Arrakis, also known as Dune. The Sisterhood is completely dependent on this substance. Any threat to the distribution channels of the spice is a matter of life and death.

Lady Jessica and the Kwisatz Haderach

In Frank Herbert’s ‘Dune,’ the Lady Jessica is the Bene Gesserit concubine to the Duke Leto Atreides. Leto has been given authority over the desert planet, Arrakis, the single source of the invaluable spice. Jessica is part of the generations-long breeding program to produce the Kwisatz Haderach, or Bene Gesserit super-being. Due to her love for Duke Leto, she defies her order to bear only daughters. Jessica conceives a son, Paul Atreides, who shows all the signs that he may be the Kwisatz Haderach. The Bene Gesserit carefully observe the young 15-year old Paul, and his potential as the product of their genetic manipulation.

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When House Atreides relocate to Arrakis, Paul’s inherent abilities are provoked by the spice. When House Atreides is overrun by their mortal enemies, House Harkonnen, Paul and Jessica escape into the deep desert and become embedded with the native desert dwellers, the Fremen. Jessica takes advantage of the legends planted there by the Bene Gesserit’s Missionaria Protectiva, and casts Paul as the Fremen messiah and herself as the Reverend Mother who shall bring him.

Paul continues to grow in strength and power and leads the vast armies of Fremen against the Imperial forces who attempt to wrest control of Arrakis. Paul becomes the ruler of Arrakis, and the one who controls all spice production. One generation early, Jessica bears the Kwisatz Haderach and changes the course of thousands of years of Bene Gesserit planning to control the universe. The Bene Gesserit do not control Paul and they forever see Jessica as the one who destroyed their plans within plans. There is lot of history and detail surrounding the Bene Gesserit which would make for a great movie or television series.

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In 2019, it was announced that a television series, ‘Dune: The Sisterhood,’ would be produced for the streaming service, HBO Max. The series will focus on the Bene Gesserit and serve as a prequel to the Denis Villeneuve film ‘Dune.’ If this series happens, it could be a fascinating exploration of the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood and the overflowing universe of Frank Herbert’s ‘Dune.’

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