The women of the Bene Gesserit in Frank Herbert’s science fiction novel Dune train themselves in rigorous control of body and mind to gain a wide array of skills. With religion as a cover, they use these skills to wield political influence under the noses of the Imperium’s most powerful rulers.
What kind of skills?
The Bene Gesserit can:
- choose when to conceive and the sex of their fetus
- gain expanded consciousness of their female ancestor’ memories
- implant phrases in others’ subconscious to control them in the future
- alter the chemical composition of poisons in their body to make them harmless
- control others through mastery of the Voice
- administer the gom jabbar test of humanness
- determine whether someone is telling the truth
- put themselves into a state of hibernation
- perceive minute changes in others and their environment
- fight better than the most feared (male) warriors in the universe at close range
- engage in the art of politics and diplomacy
- speak multiple languages
These arguably make the Bene Gesserit the most highly skilled characters in the universe. The group was founded after the Butlerian Jihad, which was a revolt by humans against thinking machines and computers after these technologies were used to enslave them. The Bene Gesserit decided to develop their own talents in order to gain skills that didn’t require advanced technology. They established training schools for girls and women, and became a major political force alongside entities such as the Spacing Guild and Combine Honnete Ober Advancer Mercantiles (CHOAM).
When crafting this order of women, Herbert drew on his experiences and research in a variety of areas, including religion, language and linguistics, and psychology. This article introduces these influences as the first in a series of articles exploring the Bene Gesserit order.
Influence of Religion
The Bene Gesserit’s characterization is understated, built on a foundation of the real-world Catholic Church, including Catholic nuns and Jesuits. One clue is in their name and their title of Reverend Mother. Another clue is that Herbert has the Reverend Mothers wearing conventional, shapeless black robes and hoods, which serve to cloak them in religious mysticism (more on the Catholic influence in later posts).
Like the Catholic Church, the Bene Gesserit operates in its own sphere, rather than seeking traditional leadership positions as ruling monarchs or members of the nobility. Along with the Spacing Guild, it is a silent partner in the development corporation CHOAM—the “key to wealth” in the universe—and exerts significant influence as a major faction. 
The Bene Gesserit places women as spouses and concubines, as well as Truthsayers and advisors, in high places in order to maintain clout and control bloodlines and dynasties. The reader meets Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam, the Emperor’s Truthsayer and advisor; Lady Jessica, Duke Leto’s bound concubine and mother to their son, Paul; and Lady Margot Fenring, spouse of Count Hasimir Fenring who is close to the Emperor. The reader also finds out through Princess Irulan’s epigraph that the Emperor had a “compact forced on him to place a Bene Gesserit on the throne”, and his spouse Anirul (a Bene Gesserit of Hidden Rank) has borne him five children, all daughters.  This is significant for leaving him in a vulnerable situation with no legal sons—a predicament that has caused many crises for real-world monarchs—and no recourse to sidestep the Bene Gesserit.
The means by which the Bene Gesserit maintain influence within the medieval, feudal universe of Dune is in keeping with how both women and representatives of the Catholic Church have historically been able to exert authority from non-ruling positions.
Another major religious influence on the characterization of the Bene Gesserit is Taoism (Daoism), one of the world’s major religious/philosophical systems that developed in China in the 4th century BC (more on the many religious influences in Dune in later posts). The Bene Gesserit order follows what is known as the Bene Gesserit Way, which is inspired from the Way in Taoism. It involves maintaining balance (the idea of yin/yang) and control over oneself and, by extension, one’s environment. The Bene Gesserit learn how to control every muscle (prana) and nerve (bindu) in their body. This is the key to many of their extraordinary abilities, rather than some kind of technological enhancement.
This quotation shows Jessica chiding Paul on his frantic reaction to the loss of their pack out in the desert and informing him that he still needs more training in self-control:
“Today you panicked,” [Jessica] said. “You know your mind and bindu-nervature perhaps better than I do, but you’ve much yet to learn about your body’s prana-musculature.
The body does things of itself sometimes, Paul, and I can teach you about this. You must learn to control every muscle, every fiber of your body. You need review of the hands. We’ll start with finger muscles, palm tendons, and tip sensitivity”. 
The lesson here is that reacting on instinct is potentially dangerous; that it is better to stay calm so you can think with a clear mind. This is in keeping with the Bene Gesserit’s philosophy on the difference between humans and animals and why they test people to see if they are human. In their view, only a human can overcome instinct and use the thinking capacity to its full extent.
Influence of Language and Linguistics
The Bene Gesserit’s philosophy is also based on Herbert’s understanding of general semantics, a philosophy about language and linguistics that attracted interest in the U.S. in the 20th century. General semantics was founded by Alfred Korzybski with the publication of his book Science and Sanity in 1933.  He believed that miscommunication was partly to blame for the outbreak of conflict, such as the world had experienced in World War I. He tried to show how people could avoid this pitfall and create a better world by being more scientific and precise in their use of language (more on general semantics in Dune in a later post). 
For the Bene Gesserit, the understanding and use of language are strategic ways of maintaining control and influencing others. They learn a variety of languages during Bene Gesserit schooling, and we see Jessica use this to her advantage when she is being tested by the Fremen housekeeper, the Shadout Mapes. Linguistic control is essential to their skills in the Voice, in which they register another person’s vocal pattern in order to pitch it back to them and control them. They use the language of prophecy and legend to spread the Missionaria Protectiva or recite the cants if they need to tap into a certain legend. Thus, they understand the power of ritualistic words and phrases and when to draw upon them. Indeed, both Jessica and Paul are already marked by special names by the Fremen before they are forced to flee into the desert, and these outsiders utilize this language to help secure their safety.
Influence of Psychology
Psychology is another significant component of the Bene Gesserit order, although their abilities related to the psyche are perhaps those with the weakest link to the real world. They reflect the increasing popularity of psychology and expanded consciousness during the 20th century, as well as Herbert’s own interest in psychoanalysis.
Carl Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious is clearly linked with the Bene Gesserit’s ability to access Other Memory. The reader sees Jessica undergo the Water of Life ceremony, where she ingests a spice drink and must first neutralize the toxins before making a psychic connection with another Reverend Mother. Through surviving this process, she becomes a Reverend Mother herself and gains access to Other Memory—all of the memories of the Reverend Mother and her female ancestors. This provides Jessica with wisdom and insights from generations of women. In a way, it is an experience of instant maturation that expands her consciousness by extending her knowledge base and providing her with first-hand accounts of the past.
Although this may not seem plausible to readers, it is not entirely out of step with the idea that there is much more to the mind than humans have been able to discover so far. Sigmund Freud’s theories about the unconscious helped open up the study of the mind, suggesting that unexplainable phenomena such as dreaming might someday be understood. And psychedelic drugs showed that chemicals could unlock new experiences and mental states.
When you look at all of the clues in the text about the Bene Gesserit’s abilities and supplement that with insights from Timothy O’Reilly’s biographical study of Herbert , you can see that these women have developed something akin to a combination of Taoism, Catholicism, biofeedback, yoga, and psychoanalysis to empower women with more skills than most female characters in science fiction at that time (or even today) could hope to achieve. Like other characters, they do have some help from the psychoactive substance known as spice (more on spice in a later post). But the rest is on their own.
It’s true we as readers don’t get to see one of them going through a training montage. Herbert’s world-building is so subtle at times that we may overlook the wide range of skills the Bene Gesserit have. But we get to see the end result, especially in Jessica’s character. And it is an understated feat to behold.
In later posts I’ll be exploring the different aspects of the Bene Gesserit touched on here in more detail to show how impressive these women truly are.
 Herbert, Frank. Dune. 1965. Reprint Berkley Books, 1984. Pages 20, 203, 254-255.
 “General semantics”. Encyclopedia Britannica.
 Korzybski, Alfred. Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics. 1933.
 O’Reilly, Timothy. Frank Herbert. 1981.