The Bene Gesserit (from Latin or a Semitic language: see the origin of the name) are a key social, religious and political force in Frank Herbert's science fiction universe of Dune. It is described as a secretive sisterhood whose members train their bodies and minds through years of physical and mental conditioning to obtain powers and abilities that can easily seem magical to outsiders. Due to their secretive nature and misunderstood abilities, outsiders often call them witches. In Dune, Baron Vladimir Harkonnen is less than trusting of their motives:
Trained at the Mother School on Wallach IX, and later headquartered at a hidden world known as Chapterhouse in the two last books of the original series (Heretics of Dune and Chapterhouse Dune), the Bene Gesserit are loyal only to themselves. However, to obtain their goals and avoid outside interference, they often screen themselves with an illusion of being loyal to other groups or individuals.
For a comprehensive roster, see List of Dune Bene Gesserit
It is noted in Frank Herbert's original Dune that in the chaotic time after the Butlerian Jihad and before the unveiling of the Orange Catholic Bible, the Bene Gesserit "consolidated their hold upon the sorceresses, explored the subtle narcotics, developed prana-bindu training and conceived the Missionaria Protectiva, that black arm of superstition. But it is also the period that saw the composing of the Litany against Fear and the assembly of the Azhar Book, that bibliographic marvel that preserves the great secrets of the most ancient faiths.
The Bene Gesserit existed for millennia, appearing as a semi-mystical school that trained women for service to the Empire as Truthsayers or mates. In reality, they were subtly controlling the Empire behind the scenes in order to help humanity become more mature and ultimately guide humanity into tapping its genetic potential.
In addition to their superior combat skills, the Bene Gesserit possessed precise physiological control that allowed, among countless uses, precise control over conception and embryotic sex determination, ageing and even the ability to render poisons harmless within their bodies. Their power of Voice allowed them to control others by merely modulating their vocal tones. Sisters who survived a ritualized poisoning known as the spice agony achieved increased awareness and abilities through access to Other Memory, and were subsequently known as Reverend Mothers.
The Bene Gesserit developed a large-scale breeding program in order to create a superbeing that they could use in order to gain control more directly. To do this they sent breeding sisters to mate with those whose genes they required and whose bloodlines they had subtly manipulated for generations.
Their super-being (the Kwisatz Haderach) arrived a generation earlier than expected in their breeding plan in the form of Paul Atreides, who was free from their control. In Dune, he took control of the Empire and held a tight monopoly on the spice melange, becoming the Sisterhood's enemy. His son Leto II, however, had far greater powers and for 3,500 years he dominated the universe and the Bene Gesserit. Their spice supply was very limited and huge restrictions were placed on their actions. Their breeding program was taken away from them as well. Leto II's intentions though were, in part, to strengthen and mature the Bene Gesserit — a strategy that proved successful.
After Leto's death, the Bene Gesserit slowly gained back their power. During the Famine Times and the Scattering, many Reverend Mothers were sent out among the scattered humanity. The Bene Gesserit survived for a time with no problems until the scattered ones began to return to the Old Empire. Descendants of Tleilaxu Face Dancers and another matriarchal order called the Honored Matres began to threaten the Bene Gesserit's power. At this time the head of the Sisterhood, Mother Superior Taraza, made a bold plan to release humanity from the oracular hold of Leto II by destroying the planet Rakis (Dune), the only known natural source of the spice. The Honored Matres were goaded into destroying Dune and the Bene Gesserit brought a single sandworm to their secret home planet of Chapterhouse to begin a new spice cycle.
The Honored Matres began to destroy all of the planets held by the Bene Gesserit and enslave the populaces of all planets that they controlled. They were being chased by far more powerful forces from the Scattering. It was discovered that the Honored Matres were in reality descendants of Reverend Mothers and Fish Speakers that had fled out in the Scattering, as well as liberated Tleilaxu women whose wombs served as the core of the axlotl tanks. The new Mother Superior Darwi Odrade formed another bold plan; she decided to use a captive Honored Matre turned Reverend Mother to join the two forces under a single leader. At the end of the original series as written by Frank Herbert, a very shaky truce existed as the two groups were newly allied under new Mother Superior/Great Honored Matre Murbella.
Similar factions were created within the Honored Matres. Many refused to acknowledge Murbella as their leader; the largest such rebel group was led by Matre Superior Hellica in the Tleilax system. Of the Honored Matres on Chapterhouse, some agreed with Murbella's visions and others resisted assimilation. At large meetings on Chapterhouse the Bene Gesserit would stand at one side of the room, and the Honored Matres stood on the other. After a bloody brawl between acolytes in the schoolyard which left several dead, Murbella imposed a strict dress code forcing everyone to wear a simple black singlesuit.
As she amassed weaponry for the coming battle with the Unknown Enemy, Murbella formed an elite force of commando troops to beat down the rebel Honored Matres on other planets who still refused to acknowledge her as leader. These "Valkyries" were trained with the combined battle talents of Bene Gesserit, Honored Matre and even Sword Masters of Ginaz. Eventually, Murbella and her army were able to defeat Hellica on Tleilax, galvanizing many dissenters into finally joining her cause.
In the novel Dune, the Bene Gesserit breeding scheme is, in theory, to have come to full fruition from the union of an Atreides daughter (planned to be born of the Lady Jessica and the Duke Leto Atreides) and the na-Baron Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen (son of Abulurd Harkonnen, brother of the Siridar-Baron Vladimir Harkonnen; Vladimir is himself secretly the natural father of the Lady Jessica). Of course, the ever-so-valuable breeding scheme was disrupted when Jessica chose to conceive an Atreides son rather than the daughter she had been ordered to produce. This son proved to be the Kwisatz Haderach, a generation early.
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 unexpected Kwisatz Haderach. The conspiracy unfolds along the lines of 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 not change.
In God Emperor of Dune, the God-Emperor Leto II has taken over the Bene Gesserit breeding program for his own purposes (see Golden Path). 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 this and the last book of the original series, Chapterhouse Dune, 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.
The behind-the-scenes intrigues of the breeding program are illuminated in the Prelude to Dune trilogy as the program nears fruition. Every generation, a Reverend Mother is chosen to serve as "Kwisatz Mother" and guide the program. At that time, Anirul Sadow-Tonkin is the youngest Kwisatz Mother ever; the Reverend Mothers in Other Memory have revealed everything to her, while keeping the details of the program hidden from most Bene Gesserit. It is Anirul who is able to make the calculations that lead to the birth of Paul Atreides.
The origins of the program are revealed in the Legends of Dune series. The Sorceresses of Rossak had started keeping detailed breeding records circa 400 B.G., trying to improve the potency and prevalence of their telekinetic powers. In 108 B.G., Ticia Cenva led the Sorceresses in the collection of genetic samples of various human bloodlines, as they were in jeopardy from a catastrophic virus genetically engineered and unleashed by the thinking machines. Since the Sorceresses later became the Bene Gesserit (see History above), this process marked the beginning of the wider scope for the Sisterhood's breeding program that would later target a specific goal: the Kwisatz Haderach.
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 long-term 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.
The Bene Gesserit practice "religious engineering" through a faction called the Missionaria Protectiva, which spreads contrived myths, prophecies and superstition (collectively known as Panoplia Prophetica) among the populations of the Empire. A Bene Gesserit may then later take advantage of the prophecies, casting herself as a guide, protector, or some other figure in fulfillment of the prophecy, in order to manipulate the religious subjects for protection or other purposes. These myths also exploit religion as a powerful force in human society; by controlling the particulars of religion, the Bene Gesserit have a manipulative lever on society in general.
In Dune, Jessica and Paul take refuge among the Fremen after the attack on House Atreides. With his mother's guidance, Paul is able to make use of the planted myths by claiming to be Mahdi, a messianic 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 the maximum advantage over surrounding influences. Paul's meteoric rise to power is greatly facilitated by his association with the Mahdi legend.
The Missionaria is also used in much more ambitious ways. The Bene Gesserit employ it to prepare the entire Empire for its Kwisatz Haderach. Later, there are plans to unite the Old Empire under the Bene Gesserit against the forces of the Scattering. The plan is to use Reverend Mother Sheeana's ability to control the great sandworms to become a direct religious force.
The Bene Gesserit begin training acolytes when they are very young, and those of preference 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 Honored Matre Murbella).
An acolyte unable to effect this change dies. Only females had ever survived the agony, but through their breeding program the Bene Gesserit sought the male Kwisatz Haderach who would be able to change an illuminating poison. The Bene Gesserit try over many generations through selective breeding to produce such a being. A Kwisatz Haderach is given abilities different from those of 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; a Reverend Mother cannot access the memories of her male ancestors, and is terrified by the psychic space within her that the masculine memories inhabit. Until Paul Atreides, all men who had attempted the spice agony had died.
Jessica endured the spice agony while pregnant with her daughter, Alia. This had a profound effect on the unborn Alia, who was consequently born a full Reverend Mother with the complete Other Memory of both the male and female ancestors in her bloodline. The Bene Gesserit refer to children born this way as "Abominations". Without the benefits of Bene Gesserit mental conditioning, however, this later led to Alia's 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 the Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, Alia's grandfather, whom she murdered as a child in the events of Dune. Presumably, Alia had been more genetically likely to access male Other Memory than the typical Reverend Mother, as her brother Paul was the Kwizatz Haderach.
The origin of the ritual is explained in the prequel Dune: The Battle of Corrin when Raquella Berto-Anirul is poisoned by Rossak Sorceress Ticia Cenva with the Rossak Drug. She manages to internally convert the poison into a harmless substance and is thus the first to experience the awakening of Other Memory. Raquella later establishes the Bene Gesserit, presumably perfecting the technique and training others to survive the ordeal.
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 genetic memory, and thus, up to the point where each following ancestor was born and the physical contact with the mother broken. 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. The first Bene Gesserit to access Other Memory was Raquella Berto-Anirul, the founder of the order, as revealed in Dune: The Battle of Corrin.
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, male and female. Male memory will be complete until moment of conception, when physical contact with the father, through ejaculation, is lost.
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 is important to take her ego/memory so that her plans and strategies may continue uninterrupted. This is first explored in Dune, when Jessica accepts the life experience of the dying Fremen Sayyadina Ramallo. 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; 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 Chapterhouse Dune , the Bene Gesserit school on Lampadas, under attack by the Honoured 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 (it is always emphasized as "Voice" in the novels) to compel obedience in listeners on a subconscious level. By controlling the subtleties of her voice, a Bene Gesserit can directly address and thus issue commands to another person's unconscious mind in a way that the conscious mind may or may not be aware of, but is unable to resist. The Voice can be specific to individual listeners, but it is applicable in group speaking as well. In some way, Voice is an extreme version of oratorical ability.
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 need not 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 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." The first Bene Gesserit to use Voice was Raquella Berto-Anirul, the founder of the order, as revealed in Dune: The Battle of Corrin.
The Voice is useless against targets who cannot hear the Bene Gesserit (e.g., someone who is deaf or otherwise deliberately inhibiting their ability to hear sounds by other means); both House Harkonnen in Dune and House Corrino in Children of Dune employ deaf people to guard Jessica, knowing that she cannot control them via the Voice. The effectiveness of the Voice is also 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, though this limitation usually negated by the Bene Gesserit's skills in observing their targets and perceiving their 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. One trained in the use of the Voice may easily detect its use by others, even subtly. In Dune Messiah, Paul trains some guards to resist Voice so that he may imprison Bene Gesserit. By the time of Children of Dune, Gurney Halleck has also been trained by Jessica to resist the Voice completely.
In Heretics of Dune Reverend Mother Odrade explains to Sheeana that planetary populations exposed to long term Voice control learn ways to adapt to it, and can no longer be manipulated. This is why the Honored Matres have been driven back into the Old Empire; over-controlling, they've built up both resistance and rebellion, and are now on the run from their former subjects.
Bene Gesserit are trained to exercise petit perception at all times, noticing to a terrifying degree minutiae that others miss. 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.
Bene Gesserit trained as Truthsayers are able to detect whether someone is lying by detecting inflection and change in a subject's voice, observing and interpreting their body language and analyzing physical signs like pulse and heart rate. Such perception of someone else's veracity is 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."
Truthsayers are used widely in politics and trade; the Padishah Emperors are never without one. Combined with Voice, Truthsaying is also useful for interrogation and torture. Truthsayers have been known to be wrong or deceived, most often because they are facing another Bene Gesserit who has of course been trained to disguise the very signs the Truthsayer is analyzing.
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. This simulflow can also be held with Other Memory; Reverend Mother Darwi Odrade practiced both forms in Heretics of Dune.
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, bend and contort her body in ways that most would consider impossible, or put a remarkable amount of force behind a physical blow. The mental part of prana-bindu, or prana-nervature (prana stands for breath, bindu stands for musculature) is the precise control of the totality of nerves in the human body. In Dune, Reverend Mother Mohiam tests Paul with a nerve induction device that causes the sensation of intense pain. Paul learns that he is not the only one to have tried it, but is perhaps specially resistant; this conversation points to a widespread use of it as a tool among the Bene Gesserit to measure self control, nerve control, and as Mohiam puts it, crisis and observation.
Unarmed attacks are part of the specialized martial art called the Weirding Way, which incorporates the prana-bindu methods of optimized muscle control, which enable one to deliver powerful blows and to move with extreme precision and speed. The basic principle behind the Weirding Way is that, as Farad'n Corrino says, "My mind affects my reality." A user of the Weirding Way has to know that the action he or she 'wants' to perform has already been performed. For example, to imagine oneself behind an opponent at the current moment in time; when trained well, this knowledge will place you at the spot desired.
Just as the Prana-bindu allows the Bene Gesserit to precisely control each muscle and nerve, they also have complete conscious control over the functions of their internal organs and body chemistry. A Sister can 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 control their need for food and water to the extremes of hunger and thirst, and even commit suicide at will by simply stopping their hearts. The Bene Gesserit are therefore immune to poisons, as they can simply change the chemical makeup of any harmful substance in their body and render it harmless. It is hinted 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 to the Sisterhood and reveal too much of their abilities. In Children of Dune, Jessica realizes that her daughter Alia has done this, which is her first sign that her daughter is sinking into Abomination.
One of the most significant biological abilities of the Bene Gesserit is their control their own menstrual cycles, and their ability to control (at conception) their child's gender. Jessica was ordered to bear only daughters to the Atreides, but defied her Bene Gesserit sisters (out of her love for the Duke) and had her son, Paul Atreides. The Bene Gesserit conspired against the Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV's desire to have a male heir and only allowed his Bene Gesserit wife to give him daughters, such as Princess Irulan.
In Dune, Lady Fenring is instructed by the Bene Gesserit to seduce Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen in order to "preserve the bloodline" by retrieving his genetic material through conception. She also intends to "plant deep in his deepest self the necessary prana-bindu phrases to bend him," which she later refers to as the "Hypno-ligation of that Feyd-Rautha's psyche." When Paul later fights Feyd to the death, Jessica advises her son to temporarily stun him using the word-sound Uroshnor, typically implanted in a dangerous person who has been prepared by the Bene Gesserit. Paul, however, refuses to use this advantage.
In Heretics of Dune, Reverend Mother and Imprinter Lucilla is charged with the seduction-imprinting of the Duncan Idaho ghola so that the Sisterhood may assert some control over him; he ultimately avoids her. Lucilla also mentions the hundreds of sexual positions and variations she knows. In Heretics, the Honored Matres have themselves refined this ability to such an intense level that the targeted male becomes completely enslaved. The captured Honored Matre Murbella attempts this on Duncan; his own imprinting ability, secretly conditioned into him by his Tleilaxu creators, suddenly manifests itself. Murbella and Duncan basically imprint each other, neither having complete control over the other. In Chapterhouse Dune the order has learned the Honored Matre method from Murbella and use it for their own purposes, specifically to awaken the memories within the Miles Teg ghola.
An imprinter can be successfully resisted if the subject has been psychologically pre-conditioned. When the imprinter attempts to seduce the subject, he will automatically respond to the conditioning and resist, or attempt to slay her. More simply, if an imprinter is recognized they can be easily avoided.
Thus, the most significant threat to the Sisterhood is the potential loss of the supply of melange. For most of the time since its discovery, melange has been limited to one source, the planet Arrakis. And as this source can be controlled, the Bene Gesserit (and the rest of the Known Universe) may also be controlled using their reliance on the spice; this hydraulic despotism is a central issue in the beginning of the series.
Other productions based on the novel alter the litany. The version from David Lynch's 1984 film ends at "over me and through me'"—the last three sentences are removed. The litany is also slightly different in the TV miniseries Dune and Children of Dune (Children of Dune adapts Dune Messiah and Children of Dune into one miniseries).
In fact, many characters throughout the series say the Litany in a slightly personalized form, although the core concepts remain.
"Bene gesserit" by itself in Latin means "(s)he shall have behaved well". Gesserit is a form of the Latin verb "gerere" (third person singular, in either the future perfect active indicative or the perfect active subjunctive), whose meanings include "to carry", "to wear", "to manage", "to bear (a child)", "to behave", or simply "to do". Thus the translation of "bene gesserit" is open to wide interpretation. Among the possibilities are "it will have done well", "she will have borne (a child) well", "he will have behaved well", et cetera.
In Brian Herbert's biography of his father, Brian speculates that the name "Gesserit" is supposed to suggest to the reader the word Jesuit, thus evoking undertones of a religious order. Like the Jesuits they have also been accused of using casuistry to obtain justifications for the unjustifiable.
William F. Touponce writes:
"Considering Herbert's early education at the hands of Jesuits, it seems likely that this choice of name for his majordomo [Moneo] accomplishes a deliberate irony. By the way, Bene Gesserit means "that it may be borne or accomplished well," and is derived from the hortative subjunctiveof the Latin verb gero, meaning "to bear or carry away" in its root sense, but also "to conduct oneself in society.