Everything about the Bene Gesserit sisterhood is designed to intrigue the reader. They exist in a realistic universe, confined by the same laws of physics and reasoning as our own. But through sheer will and discipline, they've managed to bend those rules, gaining seemingly supernatural abilities in the process.
They've been called psychics, priestesses, witches, and mediums, but none of those things are true. They are the great manipulators, masters of the human mind, the overseers of society, always close by but never fully understood.
They kept their mysteries cloaked in rituals and ancient encrypted texts. We knew very little about where they came from. We had heard rumors of a matriarchal society that had sprung up on old Terra countless eons before the events of Frank Herbert's Dune. There were contradictory legends of a group of sorceresses, who had come from another planet filled with poisonous jungles. The nature of their reverend mothers, leaders within the sect, was also a mystery. Some said they were mutants, carrying a specific gene that allowed them to dip into an enhanced state of mind. But in the original novel, Paul Atreides and his mother Jessica were able to attain this state after learning how to subdue a poison that originated from Arrakis. Some of these myths can be decoded and thrown out, but the sisters will always have their secrets, even from the audience.
When Dune premiered in 2021, a Bene Gesserit ship descended through Caladan's thick fog, accompanied by a frenzied chanting choir. Jessica Atreides was kneeling in wait, completely beside herself with terror. Chills ran down the spines of millions. We had been waiting 20 years to see the Bene Gesserit walk out of that shuttle, and though many of us had seen pictures, we still didn't actually know what to expect.
Gone were the headdresses, hairless hags, and sharpened metallic teeth. Their gregarious style had been muted, replaced by a somber group, their faces veiled in black. They were more realistic, and they had stage presence. Charlotte Rampling's Voice pounded against the eardrums of the nation. But she was gone almost as soon as she had come, sprinting offscreen to take care of other pressing matters. That simply will not do.
It's been 60 years since the Bene Gesserit were introduced to the public, and we've only been given a few short glimpses of them on film. Most people thought we'd only read about them after David Lynch's failed attempt in 1984 and that ridiculous Scyfy debacle in 2000. Fortunately, HBOMax has heard our prayers. They've already started casting for a new series based on the order called 'Dune: The Sisterhood,' and though we don't know much about it, we do know that it will be all about the witches of science fiction, and for many, that's enough to get excited.
The History of the Bene Gesserit
The contradictory legends of the origins of the sisterhood come from two separate canons. When Frank Herbert was still alive, he allowed a group of authors to create an encyclopedia based on his universe. It was meant to be used as a companion to his novels. In it, they detailed the history of a nation that existed in Mesopotamia, known for a genetic marker that allowed them to dip into the collective memories of the dead. Over the years, the men were trained to suppress this ability, which made it impossible to kill. They could feel the pain after it was inflicted. The women took over, developed their own hierarchy, and began building the Bene Gesserit from those who carried the gene.
Herbert contradicted the encyclopedia several times in his later works. It's an interesting body of knowledge, but it doesn't apply to the new series. HBOMax has decided to base the show on Brian Herbert and Kevin J Anderson's prequel Sisterhood of Dune.
In their expanded universe, the sisterhood first took root on the planet Rossak. Breeding on Rossak was difficult due to the prevalence of toxins in its purple jungles. It caused severe defects and stillbirths. It also caused a mutation that belonged to a select group of women known as sorceresses. These women were beautiful--perfect in form--and capable of utilizing psychokinesis, the ability to affect the world around them with their minds.
The Rossak sorceresses enforced a vicious form of eugenics. Imperfect children were labeled misborns and abandoned in the jungle to die. Men were considered inferior and often relegated to the role of foragers, workers, and mates. All unions were polygamous and determined based on Rossak's breeding program, a set of supercomputers hidden somewhere on the planet.
The sorceresses were sharply opposed to Omnius, the thinking machine that was waging a war against humankind. Humanity was successful in their campaign to stamp him out, but before he died he engineered a virus known as the Scourge to send the race into extinction. Most humans were able to avoid it by ingesting melange. But when the virus hit Rossak, it reacted to the planet's strange ecology, evolving into something much deadlier. It built a resistance to melange and spread through the population.
Raquella Berto-Anirull was dispatched to aid the sorceresses in their recovery. Their leader, Ticia Zenva had taken after her mother Zufa, a hellish brute of a woman whose sharp tongue and Darwinian principles left her devoid of any sense of compassion. Ticia felt threatened by Raquella. She didn't want to believe that the sorceresses needed help, and she didn't want anyone to see how vulnerable they were. The sorceresses saw themselves as a master race, and they wanted to impose that mindset on the rest of society. Now they were dying, and everyone knew about it.
Raquella was patient, hardworking, and entirely dedicated. She managed Ticia as best she could, doing everything in her power to save the sick. Nothing worked, and she was starting to come down with the virus herself. She was ultimately left bedridden and abandoned on a gurney to die. Ticia's misborn son had taken a liking to her. He snuck her out of the hospital and into a cavern in the jungle where he immersed her in healing water. It cured her, and it changed her somehow. When she went back to the hospital and fell asleep, Ticia poisoned her, and she woke up to find herself dying.
The compounds from the jungle water allowed her to reach within herself and subdue the poison, which was known as the Rossak Drug. It altered her state of consciousness, giving her the ability to connect with the minds of her ancestors. She used her new abilities to cure the other patients and the few sorceresses that had lived through the epidemic. Ticia killed herself before Raquella could cure her, leaving Raquella in charge of the women and Rossak's breeding program.
Raquella had become the first Reverend Mother, but nobody understood what that meant or how to reproduce the process. All they knew was that Raquella had taken the Rossak Drug, and now she was more than just a woman--not quite a sorceress, but something new and strange. She used her newfound gifts and her influence as a healer to unite the sorceresses and create the Sisterhood of Rossak, the early beginnings of the Bene Gesserit.
How Do the Bene Gesserit Achieve Their Goals?
As the years went on, and the sisterhood faced hardship and inner turmoil, they began to learn the importance of politics. They became the quiet movers and shakers behind the known universe. They placed themselves at the sides of powerful men, offering their abilities in exchange for a powerful ear to whisper into. They trained noble women, indoctrinating them in their ways so they could control them, or so they could empower them through their breeding program. They also became neutral parties, much like the modern Swiss, capable of overseeing negotiations between foreign powers. They even became silent partners within CHOAM, the Imperium's trading organization.
They learned to carve out a quiet niche for themselves, implanting agents throughout the universe to maintain their influence, and in so doing, they found a way to survive the vicious battles between ruling bodies and the arcane fervor behind war and fanaticism.
One of the Bene Gesserit's most interesting tactics was the Panoplia Propheticus; it's rather genius, actually. Reverend Mothers are capable of reaching back through the mists of time and connecting with their ancestors, even those who lived on ancient Terra before the planet was destroyed. They had seen firsthand the power that religion held over men's hearts. They knew it was one of the most effective controlling forces available to them, and they fully understood how to utilize it. So they created the Missionaria Protectiva, a black arm of the sisterhood, which strategically spread the Panoplia Propheticus throughout the known universe.
The Panoplia Proheticus was a series of myths, creeds, prophecies, and superstitions--anything that could be passed down through the ages, allowing them to control a particular region. They might fake a prophecy about a second coming so they could fulfill it whenever they needed an army. They could create a lineage of reverend mothers posing as nuns or priestesses so they could impose a specific law. The tactic had countless uses, and it lasted. Their plans were said to be measured in centuries and even millennia. They could spread Panoplia Propheticus and activate it 500 years in the future if they needed to. It was highly effective and efficient.
What is the Bene Gesserit's Ultimate Goal?
The sisterhood's goal is to better humanity by achieving a time of stability, enlightenment, and growth. They're best positioned to understand human nature--the dangers of illogical thinking, addiction, sex, authoritarianism--everything that poisons the individual and society. That is their arena. They can manipulate those forces, control them, protect themselves from them, and in some cases, they can even stamp them out. They control the strings, but they can't see the future. They don't know every variable, and they can't predict every outcome. This seems to be their biggest weakness.
They have power, but they can't wield it as effectively as they would like. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why they decided to use their breeding program to create the Kwisatz Haderach, the mind that could bridge space and time. With his ability to see into the future, they could use their methods of control with perfect precision, directing humankind into a Golden Age that would benefit everyone, especially the Bene Gesserit.
What Powers Do the Bene Gesserit Have?
In essence, the Bene Gesserit were all about control, from the molecular to the cosmic level, and they were quite good at it. On the individual level, their schools focused on prana-bindu training--'prana' meaning nerve, and 'bindu' meaning muscle. They learned to master every nerve and muscle in their bodies, including the human brain, right down to the very molecules, and this gave them the following powers:
Metabolic Control: They were capable of detecting poisons and rendering them harmless by altering their own metabolism.
Oral Analysis: They could detect the chemical composition of anything they tasted.
The Voice: With the proper sound frequency, sisters of the order could control almost anyone.
Weirding Way: The Bene Gesserit were the masters of hand-to-hand combat. They were nearly unrivaled. Only the Fremen and the Emperor's Saurdaukar could best them.
Fertility Control: The Bene Gesserit could decide when they wanted to get pregnant and the sex of their child.
Mental and Physical Discipline: Due to the sisterhood's superior control over their bodies and minds, they could control their breath, their blood flow, body heat, and their states of consciousness--inducing a state of relaxation, or awareness, depending upon the needs of the situation they were in. They also had a heightened sense of perception--a favorite plot device of Frank Herbert's. Whenever they had a conversation, that awareness took the place of the basic gestures we're used to in dialogue. They could sense things in others--lies, gestures, changes in breath or tone, even detect objects on them. This was a nuanced gift, and it manifested in many ways. Their truthsaying abilities in particular came in handy quite a bit in powerful circles. You could not lie to a Bene Gesserit, and one never knew when they might be listening.
What Role Will The Bene Gesserit Sisterhood Play in the New Series?
The Sisterhood of Dune takes place in a formative era immediately after the end of the war against the thinking machines. The Corrino Empire had just taken hold, and the sisters were reeling from inner turmoil, political interference, and fanatic fervor.
The Cult of Serena Butler, an offshoot of the Jihad that helped to destroy the thinking machines, began ravaging the universe, slaughtering and pillaging any community that dared to make use of anything more complicated than a simple flashlight. The Sisterhood of Rossak gets caught in all of these events, and they are affected greatly by them. They also have their own collective and individual goals.
But we can't even begin to guess the plot of the new series. Brian Herbert and Kevin J Anderson have been universally panned by one of the largest science fiction fandoms in existence. Most hardcore Dune fans run when their names are typed out. We've seen that before, but not like this, and never on this scale. There are millions of people who consider themselves Dune lovers. The franchise is one of the genre's most successful, so the creators of the series are going to have to do something to placate them, or it will fail. It's also important to remember that the expanded universe is like one, long continuous soap opera that has been running for 60 years. Anyone who has tried to watch 'Days of Our Lives' knows what I mean. It's physically impossible to just dive into the show, because there are too many characters, and too many plot points and they've been playing out every single day for decades. There's no catching up. What's worse, the plot of The Sisterhood of Dune is centered around a man with an extended lifespan. In order to accurately adapt the novel, the series would have to spend hours going over detail after detail, and there's no getting around that. We will never see a faithful adaptation onscreen. But we can expect some of the plot points and information in this article to show up.