sand dune with spy overlay

The Bene Gesserit’s Schooling in Espionage and Politics

Knowledge is power, and the Bene Gesserit women in Frank Herbert’s science fiction novel Dune (1965) don’t leave school until they have learned languages, politics, espionage, and other subjects in preparation for their roles as members or agents of this secretive organization. This article explores these aspects of their training, as the third in a multi-part series on the Bene Gesserit’s abilities. (See part 1, real-world influences, and part 2, nerve and muscle control.)

Women in Espionage

Although what comes to mind when you think of a well-trained agent or spy may not be a woman, historically women have “effectively served in espionage as couriers, guides, code breakers, intelligence analysts, and operations officers”. [1] The Bible even mentions a female spy, Rahab, in the Book of Joshua.

Spies in America

woman holding spyglass upIn the U.S. during the American Revolution, housewives, cooks, and maids were used to eavesdrop on soldiers, since their traditional women’s roles were seen as non-threatening and non-suspicious. [1] The television show TURN: Washington’s Spies, for example, tells the stories of several female spies who played important roles in the Culper spy ring.

The American Civil War gave rise to more structure and training for agents, and “elaborate clandestine networks were established and managed by each side across the country, with women serving at all levels, including as scouts, encryption specialists, case officers, and intelligence agents”. [1] One Confederate spymaster was a socialite named Rose O’Neal Greenhow who gained intelligence by hosting social gatherings for military and political leaders in her home. [1] Being married to a State Department official and living in Washington, D.C. gave Rebel Rose “access to the most influential men and women in Washington, including Dolly Madison, Daniel Webster, and former President James Buchanan”. [2]

With or without formal training, women have been able to exploit stereotypes and expectations surrounding femininity and women’s roles to gather intelligence under the noses of men around them. And the Bene Gesserit take advantage of these as well, although, as we will see, they are highly educated and trained.

Formal Training

world map encased in fingerprintSince the formation of intelligence agencies like the FBI and CIA, training of agents has become more formalized, although institutions still closely guard the secrets of their methods. The precursor to the CIA was Camp X, aka Special Training School 103, which was a training facility set up by Lake Ontario in 1941 that “became the primary cryptology and espionage training facility for the Allies and collaborated on the ULTRA project to break the German ENIGMA code”. [3] After the CIA formed in the 1940s, it set up a training center / “spy school” at Camp Perry in Virginia, also known as ‘The Farm’. This is part of its internal education system where courses are held to teach spycraft. [4] It also has a “state-of-the-art foreign language facility designed to deliver critical language training” in “an expansive immersive environment where officers can master the subtleties of foreign language and culture” (CIA). [5] This shows the high importance of agents knowing multiple languages.

Bene Gesserit Schooling

In Dune, we don’t get a direct view of a Bene Gesserit school or training facility. We have to rely on Jessica to know what kinds of things were taught at the school she attended on Wallach IX, where Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam was Proctor Superior.


Through Jessica’s encounter with her new Fremen housekeeper, the Shadout Mapes, we discover that the Bene Gesserit prioritize the learning of multiple languages:

“…your title, Shadout,” Jessica said. “I recognized the word. It’s a very ancient word.”
“You know the ancient tongues then?” Mapes asked, and she waited with an odd intensity.
“Tongues are the Bene Gesserit’s first learning,” Jessica said. “I know the Bhotani Jib and the Chakobsa, all the hunting languages.” [6]

Jessica proves her ability by speaking some words: “”Miseces prejia,” she said in the Chakobsa tongue. “Andral t’re pera! Trada cik buscakri miseces perakri –” [6] The effect on the Shadout Mapes is immediate – she steps back, seemingly afraid enough to run away. Jessica continues the conversation with what she knows of the legends of the Missionaria Protectiva that Mapes is testing her with. Ultimately, her knowledge of this other language helps confirm her identity as the special one foretold in the legend. Thus, it is not for pure communication that she needs it, but as a marker of a deeper message about her legitimacy.


Another area that the Bene Gesserit are clearly versed in is espionage. We see Jessica retrieve a secret message left by the departing Lady Margot Fenring in the greenhouse after her arrival to Arrakis:

The visible note contained the code phrase every Bene Gesserit not bound by a School Injunction was required to give another Bene Gesserit when conditions demanded it: “On that path lies danger.” [6]

Jessica immediately seeks more information beyond the obvious hand-written note and finds a leaf hanging above it that has been encoded with a more detailed warning. She quickly scans the dots and the 110-word message alerts her to a danger to her son and and “a defection of a trusted companion or lieutenant”. [6] Here, we are able to see how two Bene Gesserit can safely communicate unbeknownst to others, even the skilled Master of Assassins, Thufir Hawat, who had swept the room ahead of Jessica’s arrival.

In the dinner banquet scene, Jessica recalls a lecture on espionage and counter-espionage as she studies the various guests around the table:

“You will study first how to separate this element for your analysis — in the beginning, through interrogation patterns that betray the inner orientation of the interrogators; secondly, by close observation of language-thought orientation of those under analysis. You will find it fairly simple to determine the root languages of your subjects, of course, both through voice inflection and speech pattern.” [6]

She then realizes that the Guild Bank representative is actually a Harkonnen agent because he has the “Giedi Prime speech pattern”. [6] Although he has tried to mask it, she sees through his deception with her awareness “as though he had announced himself”. [6] Through access to her internal thoughts, we know that the Bene Gesserit train their students in the art of spying, which in this circumstance gives Jessica helpful information about people’s real identities and motives. She experiences the dinner on a different level than the guests due to her training.

Later, as a Fremen Reverend Mother, she creates her own spy network. We learn of this through Paul, who knows that his mother is worried about his religious influence and has gone “questioning among the tribes, sending out her Sayyadina spies, collecting their answers and brooding on them”. [6] She knows intelligence is critical to decision-making and wants to stay informed about how the Fremen feel about her son.

Furthermore, the Bene Gesserit act as spies for their larger organization itself (more on this in future articles about the Jesuit influence). They use their placement within households and communities to gather intelligence and report back to the Sisterhood, although in some cases their communication lines are cut off, as happens when Jessica wants to “get word out to one of the schools” about Paul’s abilities. [6]


In a conversation with Dr. Yueh, Jessica briefly mentions her “Bene Gesserit business training” and shows that she is much more than a concubine in the Atreides household. [6] When Yueh suggests that she should keep herself busy with something other than worrying about Thufir Hawat’s methods of bribery and killing, she responds, “I am the Duke’s secretary — so busy that each day I learn new things to fear … things even he doesn’t suspect I know.” [6] She clearly has access to and has been entrusted with a great deal of information related to the family’s business dealings.


Jessica also is knowledgeable and skilled in the area of politics, and based on her activities we can assume that this topic would be covered extensively in her education. This makes sense since the entire Bene Gesserit organization is concerned with directing human affairs and influencing others according to their purposes.

Not only is Jessica involved in knowing about the business activities of the family, but she also clearly knows about the larger affairs in the Imperium. We see her alert and engaged in conversations about a variety of political issues with family members, household staff, dinner banquet guests, and the Fremen. After the encounter with Stilgar and his troop, which she survives based on both her fighting skills and political acumen, she remembers a chart that Liet Kynes had once shown her and casually drops the name Sietch Tabr, which shocks Stilgar and makes him more in awe of her. This excellent memory and ability to use information strategically position her to almost effortlessly gain influence over those around her.

The above examples show that the education and training at Bene Gesserit schools are substantial and encompass both mental and physical skill-building. It aligns well with the organization’s political goals that the schools maintain a sense of mystery and appear to be finishing schools for women who will go on to be spouses and concubines of noble-ranking men. Jessica is, after all, described as a graceful, well-dressed woman who can help host a formal dinner banquet and hold a conversation with her guests, and she has the business skills to act as a secretary as well. But in actuality, the schools are training women to be talented operatives tasked with carrying out the Sisterhood’s orders, so their education must be comprehensive enough for this larger purpose.

The next part in this series on the Bene Gesserit’s abilities will explore their extraordinary perceptive abilities and access to the memories of their female ancestors via Other Memory.


[1] Martin, Amy J. “America’s Evolution of Women and Their Roles in the Intelligence Community”. Journal of Strategic Security vol. 8, no. 5, 2015, pp. 99-109. Pages 99-100.
[2] Durr, Frank R. “Women.” In Encyclopedia of Intelligence and Counterintelligence, edited by Rodney Carlisle, Taylor & Francis Group, 2004, pp. 713-716. Page 714.
[3] Aryanfard, Ojan. “Stephenson, William.” In Encyclopedia of Intelligence and Counterintelligence, edited by Rodney Carlisle, Taylor & Francis Group, 2004, pp. 618.
[4] Swenson, Allan A., and Michael Benson. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the CIA. Alpha Books, 2002. Page 29.
[5] CIA. “Benefits: Education and Training.” September 10, 2019.
[6] Herbert, Frank. Dune. 1965. Reprint Berkley Books, 1984. Pages 53, 63, 72-73, 135-136, 198, 382.

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