Bene Gesserit

From Academic Kids

The Bene Gesserit are a key social, religious and political force in Frank Herbert's science fiction universe of Dune. They are a secretive sisterhood who train their bodies and minds though years of physical and mental conditioning, attaining powers and abilities that can seem almost magical. Due to their secretive nature and misunderstood abilities, outsiders often call them witches.

Trained at the Mother School on Wallach IX, and later headquartered at the hidden world known as Chapterhouse in the two last books (Heretics of Dune and Chapterhouse: Dune), the Bene Gesserit are loyal only to themselves. However, to obtain their goals they often make the appearance of being loyal to other groups or individuals. The Bene Gesserit make their first appearance on Dune: The Butlerian Jihad, where they sacrifice themselves to destroy some of the Titans and Neo-Cymeks


Strategies and goals of the Bene Gesserit

Breeding program

The ultimate goal of the Bene Gesserit, up to the novel Dune, is the creation of the Kwisatz Haderach, a male Bene Gesserit. This is a being achieved through a massive human breeding program, which the Sisterhood has conducted for countless generations; using careful manipulations of relationships and people in general, the Bene Gesserit have controlled bloodlines through the ages. The Kwisatz Haderach, with access to both male and female lines in Other Memory, will be an overt figure in the Bene Gesserit's manipulations, thrust upon the universe as the Messiah (see Missionaria Protectiva below).

In Dune Messiah, the Tleilaxu Scytale reveals that the Bene Tleilax created their own Kwisatz Haderachs--in their case, beings of pure evil or pure good, indicating that the term "Kwisatz Haderach" means some sort of creature of essence. Scytale observes that their Kwisatz Haderachs could be destroyed by forcing them to become their opposites. In the novel, Scytale raises the point as part of a conspiracy to destroy Paul Atreides, the Bene Gesserit's Kwisatz Haderach. The conspiracy unfolds along the lines of Frank Herbert's theme throughout the Dune novels that prescience grants control, but that control paradoxically traps the prescient in a foreseen future that they can't change.

In God Emperor of Dune, the God-Emperor Leto has taken over their breeding program for his own purposes. By Heretics of Dune, the Bene Gesserit have given up the idea of breeding for a messiah, instead breeding for special individuals of great talent and usefulness in order to amplify certain human characteristics and preserve them. In the two last books, the 'Latter-day Bene Gesserit' seem to see themselves as shepherds of humanity, gently nudging humans forward, rather than the comparatively gross manipulations of the early novels.

Avoiding direct power

The Bene Gesserit have chosen to use indirect methodologies to further their goals, rather than wield overt power themselves. They have noted the Taoist principle that whatever rises must fall; and so rather than taking direct control of the human race, instead manipulate the social and political order with subtlety and insinuation, often using extraordinarily longterm stratagems spanning generations. They avoid becoming or seeming too rich or too powerful or indeed revealing the extent of their powers, so as to avoid being seen as overtly responsible for the rise and fall of governments and empires.

Missionaria Protectiva

The Bene Gesserit practice "religious engineering" through a department called the Missionaria Protectiva. Reverend Mothers plant legends and prophecies throughout the universe of messiahs and pivotal figures to come. There are two purposes to this. First, a Reverend Mother in need can take advantage of the prophecies by fulfilling them, casting herself as a guide, protector, or some other figure, in order to manipulate the religious subjects for her own protection or purposes. Second, religion is a powerful force in human society; by controlling religion, the Bene Gesserit have a manipulative lever on society in general.

In Dune, Jessica and Paul take refuge among the Fremen after the destruction of House Atreides. Paul claims to be Mahdi, a figure from legendary material planted among the Fremen by the Missionaria Protectiva. That the Mahdi legend has been planted on Dune indicates to Jessica that conditions on Dune are truly awful since this legend is reserved for only the harshest environments where a Bene Gesserit would need maximum leverage over her environment.

The training of the Bene Gesserit

Training from childhood

The Bene Gesserit begin training acolytes when they are very young, and those of preference they would begin training from birth. The younger a child becomes an acolyte the more likely that child will become a Reverend Mother. The Bene Gesserit do train people at later ages, but only if they are supremely talented (e.g. the House Corrino leader Farad'n) or if they have already received similar training (e.g. the Honoured Matre Murbella).

Spice Agony

Spice agony is an ordeal in which an acolyte of the Bene Gesserit takes a massive overdose of spice essence (which is produced by drowning a worm in water and quite different from melange) and confronts her inner self, and the selves of all her female ancestors. In order to survive the ritual, she must also "change" the spice essence or Water of Life by internally neutralizing its poisonous properties. When a Fremen Reverend Mother does this it is to make the liquid safe for use by the Fremen in their Spice Orgies . If she masters the confrontation the first time, she emerges as a Reverend Mother, a Bene Gesserit of terrifying abilities, fully in command of her Other Memories (the collective egos of her female ancestors). Many Bene Gesserit women fail to master themselves and die in the spice agony.

Only females can survive the spice agony. In the legends of the novel, however, there will be one man born with the ability to change the spice, known as the Kwisatz Haderach. The Bene Gesserit try over many generations through selective breeding to produce such a being. A Kwisatz Haderach is given different abilities than a Reverend Mother. During the Spice Agony, there are two areas of the soul that the acolyte may visit — the part that gives, and the part that takes. When a Bene Gesserit acolyte becomes a full Reverend Mother, she gains her ancestral memories the complete memories of all of her female ancestors. She cannot recall the memories of her male ancestors, and is terrified by the psychic space within her that the masculine memories inhabit. Hitherto, all men who have attempted the spice agony have tried and died.

Jessica endured the spice agony while pregnant with her daughter, Alia. This had a profound effect on Alia in utero, who was consequently born a full Reverend Mother with the complete Other Memory of her mother's line. The Bene Gesserit call her "Abomination" because of this. Without the benefits of Bene Gesserit mental conditioning, however, this led to her downfall as she was unable to maintain control of the other egos striving for dominance. Interestingly, the personality that eventually took control of Alia was that of Baron Vladimir Harkonnen suggesting that the male memory traces are passed along to the females who undergo the spice agony.

The powers of the Bene Gesserit

Thanks to intensive training, all Bene Gesserit possess skills and abilities that appear to those outside the order as magical powers. These include both mental and physical powers. All Reverend Mothers are storehouses of information through Other Memory; they are trained to notice tiny details; and they have fine control over each muscle in their bodies.

Other memory

One of the 'powers' of a Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother is her Other Memory: the combined ego and memories of all her female ancestors, passed on through the genes, and thus, up to the point where each following ancestor was conceived. The ego/memory combination remains a distinct identity within the Reverend Mother's mind, and is able to inject itself into her awareness at appropriate or emotional moments, though the Reverend Mother's ego is always dominant.

A Reverend Mother has access only to her female lineage in Other Memory; her male line is unavailable to her, present as a dark void that terrifies her. Until the time of God Emperor of Dune, the purpose of the Bene Gesserit breeding scheme is to breed a Kwisatz Haderach, a male with Other Memory who can see both lines (see below).

Reverend Mothers may also pass their own ego/memory combination to other Reverend Mothers at will, merely by touching foreheads. When a Reverend Mother dies in the presence of another Reverend Mother, the second will accept the ego/memory of the first to prevent the loss of the dying Reverend Mother's experience and ancestral memories. Especially when the Mother Superior perishes, it's important to take her ego/memory so that her plans and strategies may continue uninterrupted. In Chapterhouse: Dune, Darwi Odrade is Mother Superior, a contentious choice ratified by the fact that she was present at the previous Mother Superior's death, and has her in Other Memory, so she represents the most continuous line of leadership. Under extreme conditions, a large community of Bene Gesserit will practice Extremis Progressiva, a mass sharing of ego/memories with each other to spread all the ego/memories amongst everyone; thus, if one survives, they all survive. In Heretics of Dune, the Bene Gesserit school on Lampadas, under attack by the Honored Matres, undertakes Extremis Progressiva; Lucilla escapes with 'the Lampadas Horde', hoping to return to the Bene Gesserit with them.


Bene Gesserit are trained in the use of their voice to compel obedience in listeners on a subconscious level. By controlling the subtleties of her voice, a Bene Gesserit can speak to a person's unconscious mind, commanding it in a way that the conscious mind is aware of, but cannot resist. Voice is not specific to individual listeners; it's applicable in group speaking as well. In some way, Voice is an extreme version of oratorical ability; a real-world example would be Adolf Hitler, whose speeches were said to be electrifying.

Voice control is not magical or mystical. It is an innate talent, present in greater or lesser amounts in everyone, requiring only training to be made useful. A Bene Gesserit doesn't have to be a Reverend Mother to use Voice, and others outside the order may be taught to use it. In Dune, Jessica teaches it to Paul; after the Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam tests Paul, she urges Jessica to give him the 'deep training', the deepest secrets of Bene Gesserit in the use of Voice, saying only that "he'll need it."

At least three things hamper the Voice: it is useless against targets who cannot hear the Bene Gesserit (e.g. someone deaf), and its effectiveness is limited by how well the Bene Gesserit can analyze her target's personality and vocal patterns to determine what pitch of Voice will be most effective-- a limitation offset by the Bene Gesserit's skills in observing their targets and perceiving its weaknesses. Also, being a manipulation of the target's subconscious mind, the Voice is of limited utility against an extremely disciplined mind, such as a Reverend Mother or a strong Mentat; if the target understands what Voice is and how it works, and is aware that it is being used, he may resist it; in Dune Messiah, Paul trains some guards to resist Voice so that he may imprison Bene Gesserit.

In Dune: House Harkonnen, the Baron Vladimir Harkonnen forces his way into the Bene Gesserit headquarters. The Bene Gesserit, in turn, use a form of mass Voice to convince the Harkonnens that the building is empty, though in reality the Bene Gesserit are standing all around them. This sort of 'mass hypnosis' effect is a divergence from Voice as Frank Herbert portrayed it, but Brian Herbert and Kevin Anderson are writing prequels endorsed by Herbert's estate, so it's possible that this is not just invention on Anderson's part, but is present in some form in Frank Herbert's notes.

Petit perception

Bene Gesserit are trained to exercise petit perception at all times, noticing minutiae that others miss to a terrifying degree. When combined with their analytical abilities, Bene Gesserit appear to be witches (hence the nickname for them), capable of divining secrets in persons and circumstances that are invisible to everyone else. Slight differences in air currents or the design of a room will allow a Bene Gesserit to detect hidden portals and spyholes; variations in a person's voice and tiny reactions allow Bene Gesserit to deeply understand a person's emotional state, and manipulate it.


Many Bene Gesserit are Truthsayers. A Truthsayer has a finely honed perception of their own sense of someone else's veracity, an ability that all humans have, in principle, but that requires extensive training to develop to the point of usefulness. The training of the Bene Gesserit is very useful for developing this ability, but is not the only way. It is not a skill: It is the development of a latent talent. One character describes the talent as "whenever I hear someone tell a lie, I want to turn my back on them."


Bene Gesserit also have the ability to practice simulflow, literally the simultaneous flow of several threads of consciousness at any given time. Mental multitasking, as it were. The combination of simulflow with their analytical abilities and Other Memory are responsible for the frightening intelligence of the average Bene Gesserit.

Prana Bindu training

The Bene Gesserit develop their physical abilities as well as their mental abilities. A trained Sister has full control over each muscle in her body; this is called prana bindu training. It allows her to bend the last joint in her little toe while remaining otherwise motionless or put a remarkable amount of force behind a physical blow (unarmed attacks being a part of their specialized martial art called "the Weirding Way"). They can bend and contort their bodies in ways that most would consider impossible. A Sister can also completely control her breathing and heart rate, to the degree that she can appear dead to most tests even after intense physical exertion. They can commit suicide at will by simply stopping their hearts. They can control their need for food and water to the extremes of hunger and thirst. It is hinted at that should a Bene Gesserit wish to, she could slow her aging process dramatically, controlling every aspect of her metabolism. Of course, no Bene Gesserit would ever do this as it would call too much attention and reveal too much of their abilities.

Most remarkably, the Bene Gesserit have such training over their bodies that can control what gender their child will be at conception. The Lady Jessica was ordered to have only girls but defied her Bene Gesserit sisters and had Paul Atreides. The Bene Gesserit conspired against the Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV's desire to have a male heir and only gave him daughters, such as Princess Irulan.

Weaknesses of the Bene Gesserit

Addiction to the melange

The Bene Gesserit are dependent on melange. Though the effect of melange are highly favourable, including vastly increased lifespan and mental powers, it is an addiction. Withdrawal causes death and individual Reverend Mothers are vulnerable to isolation and being without the sisterhood's resources. Melange is expensive and thus is a continual drain on the Sisterhoods resources.

But the most deadly danger is collective, i.e. the loss of the supply of melange. For most of history melange has been limited to one source, the planet Arrakis. The Bene Gesserit have thus been dependent on the maintenance of that supply and the transport of that supply across space by the Spacing Guild.


Other Memory figures prominently in the Dune Series for several reasons, one of which is that a human with access to Other Memory who has not developed a sufficiently strong ego will become possessed by a strong ancestral ego. If a Bene Gesserit undergoes the spice agony while pregnant, the fetus will also undergo the spice agony and gain access to other memories, becoming 'pre-born'. Since the foetus has no ego of its own, it becomes a vessel (eventually) for someone long dead. This is called "abomination" by the Bene Gesserit, and abominations are always killed immediately. In Dune, when Jessica undergoes the spice agony with a wild Reverend Mother with the Fremen, she is pregnant with Alia. Since Jessica and Alia are with the Fremen, the Bene Gesserit cannot kill Alia, though they urge it strongly upon Jessica, who refuses. In Children of Dune, Alia eventually succumbs to the ancestral ego of her grandfather, the Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, who wants nothing more than the destruction of the Atreides, and is given another opportunity, from the inside, to realize it. Paul and Chani's children, Leto and Ghanima, are also 'pre-born', but before they become possessed, they stumble across solutions: Leto, forced to undergo a radical spice agony, constructs an executive of benevolent ancestral egos (such as Paul and Leto I) who protect him; Ghanima, as part of their plan to fake Leto's death, consciously blocks the memory of Leto and their plan, inadvertently developing a mental discipline capable of protecting her undeveloped ego.

The litany against fear

In the Dune novel, the Bene Gesserit used the following chanted words to reduce their fear.

"I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will allow my fear to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone I will turn my inner eye to see its path. And where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain."

The exact wording varies. The version from David Lynch's film ends at "over me and through me'" - the last three sentences are removed. The litany is also slightly different in the TV-miniseries of Dune and Children of Dune (Children of Dune adapts Dune Messiah and Children of Dune into one miniseries).

Origin of the name

In the real world the name "Bene Gesserit" was likely extracted from the legal Latin phrase "quamdiu se bene gesserit" = "as long as he shall behave himself well", via someone knowing that "bene" is also Hebrew for "sons of". Bene Gesserit by itself means "She does well".

In Brian Herbert's biography of his father, Brian speculates that the name "Gesserit" is supposed to remind the reader of the word Jesuit, thus envoking undertones of religious order.

See also

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