Who are the Bene Gesserit? Inside Dune’s all-important cult
Are the Bene Gesserit behind it all? Here's what to know about the creepy Jedi of Dune.
In Dune: Part One, one of the most important tensions of the film is whether Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) can accept his heritage and embrace the powers of the Bene Gesserit.
As Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) says in Dune, Paul’s power doesn’t come just from him being the son of a Duke, but rather that his other “birthright” has potentially granted him the powers of the Bene Gesserit. But what are those powers?
And how does this ancient sect make its members clairvoyant enough to change the universe? Here’s what you need to know about the Voice, the Bene Gesserit, and religion in the world of Dune. Spoilers ahead for Dune: Part One.
What are the Bene Gesserit in Dune?
As defined by the glossary in the back of the first Dune novel (page 835) the Bene Gesserit are:
“The ancient school of mental and physical training established primarily for female students after the Butlerian Jihad destroyed the so-called “thinking machines” and robots.”
In the quasi-canonical reference book The Dune Encylopedia, a theory’s floated that the Bene Gesserit may have began on Terra (Earth), though Earth itself isn’t really a part of Dune. Essentially, the Bene Gesserit are very old. Dune takes place in the year 10191 AG, referred to as “After Guild.” But the Butlerian Jihad — a major conflict fought against oppressive A.I. — took place in 200 BG, before the formation of the Spacing Guild. So, by the time Dune starts, the Bene Gesserit are at least ten thousand years old, if not older.
What is this group? The short answer is that the Bene Gesserit are a religious order, like monks or Jedi, with the following powers:
- Amazing martial arts skills, which are called “the Weirding Way”
- The ability to tell when someone is lying.
- Control over fertility — which is why Jessica was able to make Paul male, not female, as she was ordered to
- “The Voice,” which allows the Bene Gesserit to get people to do what they want, like a creepier version of the Jedi mind-trick
What is “the Voice” in Dune?
As defined by that same glossary in Dune, (page 861), here’s what “the Voice” actually is:
“That combined training originated by the Bene Gesserit which permits an adept to control others merely by selecting tone shadings of the voice.”
In other words, by talking in a really weird way, people with this training can get other people to do what they want. In Dune: Part One, we see Paul struggle to use the Voice to get his mom to give him a glass of water. Later in the film, he successfully uses the Voice for a second to tell one of his captors to remove his mother’s gag, so that she can then use the Voice herself.
However, the Harkonnens are aware of the Voice, which might explain why one of those sent to dispose of Paul and Lady Jessica is deaf. In other words, the Voice is not telepathy; it’s a strange kind of science that utilizes sound.
In this way, the Voice is not supposed to be magical. In a sense, “the Voice” is more like the Vulcan Nerve Pinch in Star Trek than a Jedi Mind Trick in Star Wars. You can learn it if you have the right training.
What is the Bene Gesserit litany?
In Dune: Part One, we hear both Lady Jessica and Paul recite what are, perhaps, the most famous words in all of Dune, from the Bene Gesserit litany. It goes like this:
"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."
The idea behind the litany is that those with Bene Gesserit training can control not just their emotional reaction to things but also mitigate the experience of physical pain. When the Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother (Charlotte Rampling) tests Paul toward the beginning of the film by forcing him to place his hand in a box of pain, Paul’s invocation of the litany saves his life.
What do the Bene Gesserit want?
Here’s where things get tricky. The goals of the Bene Gesserit aren’t exactly noble. Although their stated goal is to guide humanity toward stability, their methods are questionable.
One of the group’s long-term goals is to usher in a messiah called the Kwisatz Haderach. To do this, as Jessica reveals to Paul they’ve been “crossing bloodlines” for centuries. Essentially, the Bene Gesserit are down with eugenics to create their chosen one.
On top of that, the Bene Gesserit are capable of seeding entire planets with religious beliefs. This is why the Reverend Mother tells Jessica that a “path” has been laid for her on Arrakis. In order to aid a member of their order in the distant future, the Bene Gesserit long ago planted stories of certain messiahs or deities so that they could later put events into motion that fulfill those prophecies.
Not all Fremen believes the “superstition” that Paul and his mother are messianic figures. But the legend that a member of Bene Gesserit and her son will come to Arrakis, transforming the planet into a paradise, is a myth deeply embedded within Fremen culture. In other words, the Bene Gesserit create prophecies on purpose, specifically designed to be fulfilled later. This is why, very early in the film, the people native to Arrakis are euphoric to see Paul set foot on the planet for the first time. They’ve been waiting for him for years because the religious order of the Bene Gesserit foretold his arrival.
In a sense, the Bene Gesserit create religions they can control. Dune doesn’t emptily revel in fantasy tropes of prophecy and messiahs. On the contrary, the existence of the Bene Gesserit belies Frank Herbert’s cynicism about large groups of people being controlled by religious doctrine. In Dune, Paul takes advantage of this situation to get what he wants. But what happens after that isn’t exactly what he or the Bene Gesserit expected.
If we ever get Dune: Part Two, all the plotting and manipulation carried out by the Bene Gesserit will take a dark turn. But, for now, if you want to see what happens to the Bene Gesserit and their long-laid plans, all you have to do is crack open that book.
Dune: Part One is in theaters now and streaming on HBO Max.