Jesuit mission building in Argentina

Female Jesuits: The Catholic Origins of the Bene Gesserit

Jesuit and Gesserit: it’s not a coincidence they sound alike. The real-life Jesuits in Roman Catholicism and the Bene Gesserit characters in Frank Herbert’s novel Dune have many parallels, including their commitment to service, missionary programs, education system, and political influence. This article explores some of the key similarities between the two and shows ways the Jesuit order can be viewed as a model for the fictional Sisterhood.

Herbert’s Personal Experience

It makes sense that the all-female Bene Gesserit order would have a basis in Catholicism, since Herbert had strong Catholic influences in his life. According to Timothy O’Reilly’s study of Herbert, he had ten maternal aunts who were close with his mother and helped raise him. [1] These aunts were Catholic and insisted that their nephew receive Catholic training. They managed to overcome Herbert’s father’s agnosticism, and so Herbert was educated by Jesuits. The strong influence of these aunts in his life means they can be viewed as a model for the Bene Gesserit, and Herbert himself described the Bene Gesserit as “female Jesuits”. [1] Herbert’s son, Brian Herbert, confirms these ideas in his biography of his father:

His Irish Catholic maternal aunts, who attempted to force religion on him, became the models for the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood of Dune. It is no accident that the pronunciations of ‘Gesserit’ and ‘Jesuit’ are similar, as he envisioned his maternal aunts and the Bene Gesserit of Dune as female Jesuits. The attempted brainwashing by his aunts, as he later termed it, was performed over the protestations of F. H. [Frank Patrick Herbert, Sr.], who was an agnostic. [2]

In an interview, Herbert said that he did not profess a religion in the traditional sense, but believed more in self-development in the Zen sense. [3] But his early exposure to such a strong Catholic influence is woven throughout his characterization of the female order. The name itself is an obvious clue. As I note in my article on the names in Dune, Bene Gesserit essentially means “good Jesuits” on the surface. [4] The name can also carry additional layers of meaning, including potentially referring to ‘good bearers’, which also supports a connection with a religious group (see article on the influence of eugenics in Dune). The order certainly appears to view itself as a force for good in the universe of Dune, even if other characters or readers hold a different perspective.

A Brief Overview of the Jesuits

Jesuit emblem
Emblem of the Jesuits

As described in Encyclopedia Britannica, a Jesuit is a member of the Society of Jesus, a Roman Catholic religious order founded by the Spanish soldier Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556) in 1540. [5] After being injured in battle, Ignatius experienced a vision and formulated a way of life that involved unconditional service to the Lord toward the salvation of souls. He and his companions, who were studying at the University of Paris, obtained approval for the order from the pope, and the founding charter pledged Jesuits to take an oath to travel anywhere needed to minister to whoever needed it. They took on a key role in the Counter-Reformation and focused on education, scholarship, and missionary work. They are still well-known in part due to their outsized impact on the world compared to other religious orders. Influential Jesuit scholar John O’Malley notes:

The Jesuits were only one of a number of new religious orders of men and women founded in the early modern period, but by reason of their size, the influence of their schools and other ministries, their missionary activity, and their ventures into almost every aspect of culture they are the best known and the most controversial. [6]

Similarities with the Bene Gesserit

There are several noticeable similarities between the Jesuit and Bene Gesserit orders, which are touched on below.

Service

 A key component of both the Jesuits and the Bene Gesserit is a commitment to service. The Jesuits had a

common spiritual ideal…to be with Jesus – in order to serve. This service was not of an ordinary kind. Of its nature it demanded excellence and high competence. This ideal was the profound internal force that bound Jesuits through the centuries and over continents into one clearly identifiable fellowship. [7]

Meanwhile, the Bene Gesserit’s motto as recited by Jessica is “I am Bene Gesserit: I exist only to serve”. [8] She is chided by Reverend Mother Mohiam for disobeying her orders and faltering in her commitment to the Sisterhood. There are clear parallels to be noticed between the strength of the order of Jesuits and the strength of the bonds between the women of the Bene Gesserit.

Education

St. Peter’s Mission in Montana, USA
St. Peter’s Mission in Montana, USA, founded by Jesuits c. 1887

The Jesuits and the Bene Gesserit also share a strong focus on education. The Jesuits valued teachers and created a rigorous educational program that included spiritual and secular subjects. [6] [9] Students at many schools learned methods of prayer, Greek and Latin literature, rhetoric, science, and philosophy, among other things. Those who did well in exams could go on to become teachers themselves. The number of Jesuit schools grew rapidly, first in Europe and then around the globe, and they came to flourish in the young United States. American schools accepted students from every class, not just sons of the elite, and emphasized character formation. Jesuit teachers treated their students as individuals who could learn by example, not just by words, and encouraged them to move through higher stages of learning. [10] Eventually, Jesuit colleges and universities were formed, many of which continue to deliver education in the 21st century (e.g., Georgetown from 1789 and the University of San Francisco from 1855).

The Bene Gesserit’s system of education, though only hinted at in the Dune series, is also a rigorous, comprehensive one. Girls from noble houses and important bloodlines appear to be educated in a variety of subjects, including history, languages, and political science. As Jessica tells the Fremen woman the Shadout Mapes, “Tongues are the Bene Gesserit’s first learning”. [8] These subjects cultivate their intellectual capacity to store and recall information and analyze their world, as well as communicate effectively. But they also learn bodily skills such as hand-to-hand combat and the ability to detect and neutralize poisons. Bene Gesserit education thus prepares young women with a well-rounded educational experience designed to serve them well wherever in the universe they end up and in whichever role they undertake.

Missionary Work

German Jesuit Missionary Johann Adam Schall von Bell
German Jesuit Missionary Johann Adam Schall von Bell (1591-1666)

For people who may be sent to the ends of the earth as missionaries, such a comprehensive education is important to their ability to survive and assimilate into foreign communities. The Jesuits were very invested in missionary work and successfully established a worldwide network of both schools and missions. Their oath called them to travel anywhere they were needed, and after only a few decades, they had established missions in Asia (including the Philippines, Macau, Japan, and China), Africa (including Ethiopia, the Congo, Angola, and Mozambique), and the Americas. [11] It is likely that they actually initiated the use of the term ‘mission’ to mean being sent out to do work as part of their ministry. [6] They understood that they needed to be able to adapt “to time, places, circumstances, and persons”, and they were unique in promoting this idea more frequently than other religious people involved in preaching work. [6]

Herbert’s characterization of the Bene Gesserit’s Missionaria Protectiva appears to be a critique of this missionizing tendency in Christianity. The name itself signals that its goal is to protect members of the Bene Gesserit, first and foremost, and this idea is confirmed in how Bene Gesserit characters like Mohiam and Jessica discuss it. Mohiam says that the Missionaria Protectiva has been to the planet Dune and softened it up, implying that Jessica will have an easier time living there due to the previous work of missionaries. Once Jessica arrives on the new planet, in her exchange with the Shadout Mapes, Jessica contemplates the sequence of events that led to her being able to say the right things to gain Mapes’ trust:

Jessica thought about the prophecy—the Shari-a and all the panoplia propheticus, a Bene Gesserit of the Missionaria Protectiva dropped here long centuries ago—long dead, no doubt, but her purpose accomplished: the protective legends implanted in these people against the day of a Bene Gesserit’s need. [8]

A panoplia is a collection of essays that are part of a polemical work. [12] One inspiration for the term ‘panoplia propheticus’ may have been the Panoplia Dogmatike, a 12th-century Byzantine anthology that became an important source for Orthodox (Christian) theology. [13] Having this term following the real-world Islamic name Shari’a in this passage adds to the sense that Bene Gesserit missionaries are spreading religious ideas that have been set and organized for a specific purpose.

In the Terminology of the Imperium, the Missionaria Protectiva is defined as “the arm of the Bene Gesserit order charged with sowing infectious superstitions on primitive worlds, thus opening those regions to exploitation by the Bene Gesserit”. [8] There is no sugar-coating: the legends and myths are intended to be “infectious” and to pave the way for “exploitation” of people who are unlikely to resist.

Ultimately, Dune revolves around Jessica’s son, Paul, being considered by the Fremen to be the fulfillment of a prophecy planted by the Missionaria Protectiva. This shows religious prophecy to be a farce – nothing more than a tool of manipulation that outsiders use to establish security and authority over the local population. The Bene Gesserit’s project is designed to sow myths and legends across the universe in case they one day need to make use of them. In one sense, Jessica and Paul are similar to the Biblical Mary and Jesus, appearing as a special mother-and-son pair whose presence massively upsets the existing world order. But they do not indicate that they believe in a higher power, merely that they are willing to use what is available in order to reclaim their family’s land and authority. The Fremen’s beliefs, then, show a naivety and enable Herbert to achieve his goal of exploring, in fiction, how and why people choose to give themselves up to follow a strong leader.

Politics

Jesuit building walkway
Jesuit building walkway

Having a strong political influence is another characteristic the Bene Gesserit share with the Jesuits. The Jesuits’ quick rise to become an influential religious order with a global reach was threatening, and their order has been considered controversial for much of its history. They were expelled or opposed by various monarchies in Europe in the 1700s, and abolished by the pope in 1773, though demand for their services led to them being reinstated in 1814. [5] Their combination of a religious focus with a secular, political one meant they were bound up with the politics of ruling families in Europe and elsewhere. For example, some served as confessors to the royal and ruling families of Europe, which gave them intimate access to those in authority. [9] They also assisted in international relations, as when Jesuits at the courts of Moscow and Beijing helped mediate and draft the Sino-Russian Treaty of Nerchinsk in 1689, which was the first international treaty that set the borders of these two empires. [9]

The Bene Gesserit also occupy a political and contentious role in their world. On the one hand, they are accepted as wives and concubines to some of the most powerful men in the Imperium. Emperor Shaddam IV’s spouse (deceased but named Anirul in Appendix IV), was a Bene Gesserit, as is Duke Leto’s bound concubine, Jessica. The Bene Gesserit are trusted as Truthsayers who can detect falsehood in others’ speech. The Emperor relies on Mohiam for this role and as his advisor. In the final scenes of Dune, she is the literal woman behind the throne, resting her hand on it in a clear indication of her authoritative presence.

On the other hand, the Bene Gesserit are feared by some for their political influence, Truthsaying ability, and other mysterious, secretive ways. In fact, several male characters label them as witches, a term that has historically been used to put women down or condemn them to punishment or death. Although some have hastily pointed to this term as proof that the Bene Gesserit are considered evil or hated, the text does not support this analysis (see article introducing their characterization). Rather, the women of the Bene Gesserit believe they are regulating and shaping humanity in a way that avoids the mistakes of the past, while also securing their own survival in the process. Taking the comparison of the Jesuits into consideration, a more appropriate view is that both groups are seen with awe and fear at various times, but this does not prevent them in the long term from continuing their work.

Clearly, the real-life Jesuit order can be viewed as a model for the fictional Bene Gesserit order. Their commitment to service, rigorous education system, expansive missionary program, and political influence have many parallels, and Herbert’s personal experience with Catholicism gave him first-hand access to some of their beliefs and methods. What is noteworthy is that Herbert crafted the Bene Gesserit as an all-female order, giving women the opportunity to gain religious and political influence in a science fictional universe that they had been denied in the real-world Jesuit order.

The next article compares the influence of another group within Catholicism on the Bene Gesserit: women religious, otherwise known as nuns.


References:

[1] O’Reilly, Timothy. Frank Herbert. Frederick Ungar Publishing, 1981. Page 89.
[2] Herbert, Brian. Dreamer of Dune: The Biography of Frank Herbert. Tom Doherty Associates, 2003. Page 21.
[3] Herbert, Frank, and Beverly Herbert. Interview with Professor Willis E. McNelly. February 3, 1969.
[4] Kennedy, Kara. “Epic World-Building: Names and Cultures in Dune.” Names, vol. 64, no. 2, 2016, pp. 99-108.doi: 10.1080/00277738.2016.1159450
[5] “Jesuit.” Encylopedia Britannica.
[6] O’Malley, John. Saints or Devils Incarnate? Studies in Jesuit History. Brill, 2013. Pages 53, 90-91.
[7] Bangert, William V. A History of the Society of Jesus. St. Louis: The Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1972. Page 512.
[8] Herbert, Frank. Dune. 1965. Reprint Berkley Books, 1984. Pages 23, 53, 55, 524.
[9] Casanova, Jose, and Thomas F. Banchoff. The Jesuits and Globalization: Historical Legacies and Contemporary Challenges. Georgetown University Press, 2016.
[10] Schroth, Raymond A., S.J. The American Jesuits: A History. New York University Press, 2007. Page 60.
[11] Wright, Jonathan, and Robert A. Maryks, editors. Jesuit Survival and Restoration: A Global History, 1773-1900. Brill, 2014.
[12] Kazhdan, Alexander, and Elizabeth M. Jeffreys. “Polemic, Religious.” In The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, edited by Alexander P. Kazhdan, Oxford University Press, 2005.
[13] Miladinova, Nadia. The Panoplia Dogmatike by Euthymios Zygadenos. Brill, 2014.

Image Credits: