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The Bene Gesserit (from Latin: see the origin of the name) are a key social, religious and political force in Frank Herbert's Dune universe. 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 be seen as magical to outsiders. 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 a 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 and avoid outside interference, they often screen themselves with an illusion of being loyal to other groups or individuals.
Strategies and goals of the Bene Gesserit
The ultimate goal of the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood, up to the end of the novel Dune, is the creation of the Kwisatz Haderach, a male Bene Gesserit. This is 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 the novel Dune, the Bene Gesserit breeding scheme was, in theory, to have come to full fruition from the union of an Atreides daughter (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. The Baron was himself the natural father of the Lady Jessica ). Of course, the ever so valuable breeding scheme was a generation off, and it was an Atreides son that was to be the Bene Gesserit totality - the Kwisatz Haderach (this gives an explanation as to why the Lady Alia Atreides, daughter of the Lady Jessica and the Duke Leto Atreides was able to have access to the genetic male-memory of the Baron Vladimir Harkonnen , her natural grandfather, as she was near the pinnacle of the centuries-long breeding scheme, and more likely to have access to her male genetic memory.
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 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 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.
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 Missionaria also was used in much more ambitious ways. The Bene Gesserit used it to prepare the entire Empire for its Kwisatz Haderach. Later there were plans to unite the Old Empire under the Bene Gesserit against the scattering forces. The plan was to use Reverend Mother Sheeana's ability to control the great sandworms to become a direct religous force.
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 Honored Matre Murbella).
Spice agony is an ordeal in which an acolyte of the Bene Gesserit takes the Awareness Spectrum Narcotic (which is produced by drowning a little maker in water. The worm gives up its bile, which in itself is a concetrated form of spice melange) and awakens her inner self, and the selves of all her female ancestors. In order to survive the ritual, she must also "change" the substance or Water of Life by internally neutralizing its poisonous properties. When a Fremen Reverend Mother does this it is not only to save her own life but to provide the changed water for the Sietch Orgy. 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. (Melange is used on Arrakis, on other planets they may use other poisons, however, once melange is introduced, most other poisons no longer work; Melange is found to be much more effective and is universally adopted after the Arrakis affair).
Only females can survive the agony. The Bene Gesserit though sought the 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 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 Atreides 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 the Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, a memory that was able to surface due to her place in the Bene Gesserit breeding scheme. (An Atreides daughter (born of the Lady Jessica and the Duke Leto Atreides ) was to have bred with the Na-Baron Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen (Son of Abulurd Harkonnen, brother of the Baron Vladimir Harkonnen ) with a high probability for producing from this union the Bene Gesserit totality: the Kwisatz Haderach . Being that Alia was an Atreides daughter, her access to male other memory was far more likely).
It was not untill Muad'Dib and his mother witnessed the use of Water of Life by the Fremen to undergo the change that the Bene Gesserit adopted it as their primary illuminating poison. Previously others were used but afterwards none were effective.
Bene Gesserit Government
In later Dune novels, the Bene Gesserit establish governance on a number of planets from the Old Empire. It is hinted throughout Heretics of Dune that they are cautiously using democracy, but this is not confirmed and elaborated upon until the supreme Honored Matre confronts a captive Reverend Mother named Lucilla and attempts to pry Bene Gesserit secrets from her on the Guild planet of Junction. In Chapterhouse, it is clarified that the Bene Gesserit societies lack any laws and use a shockingly wild system of justice. Their jurors, called Proctors, are free to come to any decision, and order whatever action is necessary. The Bene Gesserit are largely fearful of laws because of their fear of becoming Honored Matres.
Bene Gesserit History
The Bene Gesserit Sisterhood began with sorceresses during the time of the Butlerian Jihad. Their powers surfaced with the discovery of the first illuminating poison on Rossack. These groups were consolidated into a single Sisterhood. The Bene Gesserit existed for millenia appearing as a semi-mystical school that trained woman for service to the Empire as Truthsayers or mates. In reality though they were controlling the Empire behind the scenes in order to mature humanity. They 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.
Their superbeing (the Kwisatz Haderach) arrived early and was free from their control. The man Paul Atreides took control of the Empire and held a tight monopoly on the spice. He became the Sisterhood's enemy but they despite their scheming he was destroyed by his own abilities. His son however, Leto II, had far greater powers and for 3500 years he dominated 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 to strengthen and mature the Bene Gesserit and he did so.
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 untill the scattered ones began to return to the Old Empire. Descendants of Tleilaxu Face Dancers and ones called Honored Matres began to threaten the Bene Gesserit's power. At this time the head of the Sisterhood, Alma Mavis Taraza, made a bold plan to release humanity from the orcaular hold of Leto II by destroying Dune. The Honored Matres were goaded into destroying Dune and the Bene Gesserit brought a single sandworm to their main 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 they were in reality descendants of Reverend Mothers and Fish Speakers that scattered. The new Mother Superior, Darwi Odrade made another bold plan and decided to use a captive Honored Matre turned Reverend Mother to join the two forces under a single leader. At the end of the series there is a very shaky truce being held as the two groups are newly allied under Mother Superior/ Great Honored Matre Murbella.
(further information about the sorceresses is not canon as it is supplied by another author, the information included above about them is from Frank Herbert's original writing)
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.
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 is 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 Chapterhouse 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 (it is always capitalized "the Voice" in the novels) 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. The Voice is not specific to individual listeners; it is 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 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 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 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. This simulflow can also be held with Other Memory; Mother Superior Odrade practiced both forms in Heretics of Dune.
Prana Bindu training and the Weirding Way
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. The mental part of Prana Bindu, or Prana nervature (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 pain box. 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.
Internal Organic-Chemical Control
While the Prana Bindu attempts to control and properly play each muscle and nerve, there remains the question of internal organs and body chemistry, to which the Sisterhood has responded as such: 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 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 (the Lady Jessica Atreides Jessica realizes that her daughter, the Lady Alia Atreides, has done this in the novel Children of Dune . This is the first sign she encounters that suggests her daughter is sinking into abomination ).
Most remarkably, the Bene Gesserit have such training over their bodies that they can control their own menstrual cycle, and even what gender their child will be at conception. The Lady Jessica was ordered to bear only daughters to the Atreides but defied her Bene Gesserit sisters 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 gave him daughters, such as Princess Irulan.
Considerable Sexual Talents
The Bene Gesserit are notable for their extensive skill in seduction, sex and sexual imprinting.
In Heretics of Dune, Sister Lucilla has been charged with the seduction-imprinting of the Duncan Idaho ghola. While Duncan ultimately avoids her, it is implied that seduction was and is a tool for the Bene Gesserit. Lucilla also mentions the hundreds of sexual positions and variations she knows (presumably so does every sister). It is even more interesting that Lucilla is a breeding mistress, pointing to their sexual talents as a major force in their breeding programs, not just concubines and wives; note that while Mother Mohiam was raped by Baron Harkonnen in the Brian Herbert novels, the original novels point to a "clever seduction" in his youth, presumably by Tanidia Nerus as mentioned in Children of Dune, as the reason for Lady Jessica's existence.
Weaknesses of the Bene Gesserit
Addiction to the melange
Reverend Mothers are dependent on melange to give them their abilities. Any person who consumes Melange regularly becomes addicted to it and requires it for survival, however, one who has gone through the agony has a far greater need. Though the effects 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 Sisterhood's 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 fetus 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 permit it to pass over me and through me.
- And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
- Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
- Only I will remain."
Other productions based on the novel alter the litany. 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).
- "I will not fear.
- Fear is the mind-killer.
- I will face my fear.
- I will let it pass through me."
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/she shall behave himself well", via someone knowing that "bene" is also Hebrew for "sons of". Bene Gesserit by itself means "(s)he shall have behaved well".
Gesserit is a form of the Latin verb 'gero' (specifically the third person singular of the future perfect active indicative), 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 envoking undertones of a religious order.
== Bene Gesserit in the Prequels
Appearance in prequel novels
In the prequel novels written by Brian Herbert and Kevin J Anderson, the Sorceresses of Rossak, who possess powers only females can use and have a breeding plan to create more powerful telepaths, are undoubtebly the precursors to the Bene Gesserit (although most fans do not consider the prequels canon). They make their appearance in Dune: The Butlerian Jihad, where they sacrifice themselves to destroy some of the Titans and Neo-Cymeks. It is later revealed in Dune: The Battle of Corrin that Vorian Atreides' granddaughter, Raquella Berto-Anirul, is really at the origin of the Order, acquiring powerful mental powers after a traumatic near-death experience. She resists a poisoning attempt by internally converting the drug into a harmless chemical, being the first to undergo the Agony.
In Dune: House Harkonnen, the Baron Vladimir Harkonnen forces his way into the Bene Gesserit headquarters. The Bene Gesserit, in turn, use their mastery over the human psyche to hide in the shadows, taunting the hapless Harkonnen soldiers who cannot find them.
In Dune: House Atreides, the Baron Harkonnen rapes Reverend Mother Mohiam, who infects the Baron with a venereal disease as a form of punishment. This disease is an attempt to explain the Baron's later corpulence.