World-building science fiction novels often include a glossary of unique names and terms. Frank Herbert’s ‘Dune’ is no exception. In fact, ‘Dune’ may have more than most, but this only underscores the depth of Herbert’s creation. One of the central themes of this masterpiece of the imagination is the messiah archetype in the form of young Paul Atreides.
The Bene Gesserit Sisterhood, an all-female religious order, plays a central role in the story of ‘Dune.’ Over thousands of years, the Sisterhood carried out a human genetic breeding program to produce a super-being known as the Kwisatz Haderach. Who is this person and what is their significance to the story of ‘Dune?’ Let’s explore the answer to the question, “What is the Kwisatz Haderach?”
Building a Super-being
The Bene Gesserit Sisterhood primarily used the term Kwisatz Haderach, from the secret Chakobsa language of ancient Earth, which literally means “Shortening of the way.” It may also have origins from the Hebrew term “Kfitsat Ha’derech” which means a leap or great advancement in technology or science.
The Sisterhood had a deep desire for prescient knowledge, or the ability to see into the future. For some reason, this power was unattainable by females. The addictive spice melange gave the Bene Gesserit a limited form of prescience, the ability to see into the very near future, but nothing more. The spice also gave them ‘Other memory’ which unlocked the genetic memory of their ancestors, but only the female side.
The Bene Gesserit desire for these powers drove their genetic breeding program to produce a male with complete prophetic powers and the genetic memories of both female and male ancestors. This man would be called the Kwisatz Haderach, and he would be under the Sisterhood’s control.
Instead of using military or economic power to further their objectives, the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood control governments and societies through generations-long manipulation. A faction of the Sisterhood, the Missionaria Protectiva, practice ‘religious engineering’ by planting prophecies and legends among primitive peoples and opens them to exploitation by the Bene Gesserit. These programs require incredible patience and planning over thousands of years.
In ‘Dune,’ the Bene Gesserit used this method to plant an ancient prophecy on Arrakis among the indigenous Fremen that a messiah or ‘Mahdi’ would come to liberate their people. The native Fremen believed that an off-world prophet, the ‘Lisan al-Gaib’ or ‘Voice From Another World’ would bring them freedom.
This exploitation of the Fremen religion by the Bene Gesserit setup a sequence of events that would enable their Kwisatz Haderach to fit the messiah prophecy. This messiah-figure would mobilize the Fremen forces to overthrow the Emperor and place their Kwisatz Haderach on the throne. With their super-being as Emperor, the Bene Gesserit could effectively control the Arrakis spice production and the Known Universe.
The Bene Gesserit underestimated one their own, the Lady Jessica, who bore a son one generation too soon. As the concubine to Duke Leto Atreides, Jessica was also a member of the Sisterhood. A trained Bene Gesserit has the power to decide the gender of her unborn child and Jessica was ordered by her superiors only to bear daughters to Leto.
The Bene Gesserit plan to produce the Kwisatz Haderach was to mate the daughter of Leto with a son of House Harkonnen, the Atreides sworn enemy. Jessica disobeyed this command and bore a son, Paul, out of her deep love for Leto. Her decision changed the course of thousands of years of genetic breeding and disrupted the Sisterhood’s plot to rule Arrakis and the Empire.
It’s not clear if Jessica gave birth to a son knowing he could be the Kwisatz Haderach. However, she raised Paul as if he might be. Throughout Paul’s formative years, Jessica taught her son the ways of the Bene Gesserit.
As Paul grew, he began to have dreams which foretold the future. The Bene Gesserit watched him carefully, and when Paul was fifteen they sent a Reverend Mother to administer the gom jabbar test to evaluate his prescient abilities.
If Paul really was their Kwisatz Haderach, they wanted to know. Even if their super-being arrived one generation too soon, it was critical that they maintain control of him. However, the trauma of the gom jabbar test instilled Paul’s distrust of the Sisterhood, which would only deepen as his prophetic abilities matured.
The Fremen Prophecy
The native people of Arrakis were a stout, resourceful group known as the Fremen. Descendants of the nomadic Zensunni Wanderers, the Fremen migrated from planet to planet until they settled on the brutal desert world of Arrakis, also known as Dune. The merciless conditions of Arrakis shaped the Fremen into a formidable combat-oriented culture.
The Fremen were also a deeply spiritual people and Arrakis influenced their religious thinking. They believed in a Supreme Being, and the enormous sandworms of Arrakis were their physical manifestation of God. The Fremen also held that prophets could receive revelation from God to guide their destiny.
Thousands of years before the events of ‘Dune,’ the Bene Gesserit’s Missionaria Protectiva planted a prophecy among the Zensunni that a being from another world would come and liberate them from suppression. The legend of the ‘Lisan al-Gaib’ was well-known by the Fremen tribes at the time House Atreides took possession of Arrakis.
Is He the One?
When the Harkonnens invaded the Atreides on Arrakis, Paul and Jessica fled into the deep desert. When they were given refuge by the Fremen, Jessica seized the opportunity to leverage the ‘Lisan al-Gaib’ prophecy.
Based on Paul’s prescient abilities and Jessica’s encouragement, the Fremen accepted Paul as the ‘Lisan al-Gaib.’ He was given a new Fremen name, Paul Muad’dib, and became the messiah-figure that would lead the Fremen to freedom.
Paul Muad’dib possessed the collective powers of a Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother, Mentat, and a Spacing Guild Navigator. He was the Kwisatz Haderach, but not as the Bene Gesserit had planned. Paul was not controlled by the Sisterhood, and he led the Fremen forces to victory against the Harkonnens and overran the Imperial Saudakar terror troops. Paul became the ruler not only of Arrakis, but displaced the Emperor and governed all the Imperium.
Some readers misinterpret Paul’s genetic superiority and prophetic powers to mean that he was God. Frank Herbert described Paul Muad’dib as a messiah-type person, not an actual god.
Paul was a reluctant messiah figure. He was victorious against his enemies, but we have a sense that Paul felt trapped by the knowledge of this future. He longed for simple happiness with his love, Chani. He eventually regrets the jihad waged in his name because he hoped there was a way to bring order without so much suffering and death.
What is the Kwisatz Haderach? A genetically bred person with super-human abilities who would empower the Bene Gesserit to take control of the Empire. But things don’t always turn out as planned. Jessica’s decision to bear a son derailed the Sisterhood’s plan and changed the course of human history. Among many themes, the story of ‘Dune’ reminds us that seemingly insignificant decisions can have monumental consequences. We could all do well to remember that.
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