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I've been re-reading through Dune recently, and I've been considering the prophecy of the coming of Mahdi that the Bene Gesserit supposedly implanted on Arrakis as part of the Missionaria Protectiva.

From the perspective of the Bene Gesserit and Jessica, it's not a real prophecy, but rather a superstitious myth that they intentionally seeded in the people of Arrakis many generations ago so that they could be more easily controlled by members of the Bene Gesserit when necessary. And Jessica recognizes and makes use of these opportunities straight away after arriving on Arrakis, playing into the roles in the myth.

However, multiple characters repeatedly observe that the part of the prophecy that refers to Mahdi keeps lining up uncannily with Paul in ways that I think wouldn't make sense if this were a purely artificial prophecy seeded purely for the purposes of control. Paul doesn't know about the details of seeded prophecy (and in fact I'm not even sure if he knows about the Missionaria Protectiva at the time he arrives on Arrakis, though I don't recall for sure if this is the case) and so he can't intentionally play into it. He just does on his own naturally. And of course, Paul eventually does become the Kwisatz Haderach and essentially fulfills this prophecy, beyond even the expectations of the Bene Gesserit.

So my question is about how this prophecy came about. Some possibilities:

  1. Was this prophecy actually a real prophecy?

    Prescience is an important theme in all of the Dune books (or at least the ones written by Herbert, which are the only ones I've read), and while Paul is the first Kwisatz Haderach, there are others instances in the books of people having minor powers of prescience without being a full Kwisatz Haderach, so I'm wondering if this prophecy could have actually been the result of a prescient vision, perhaps even without the Bene Gesserit being aware of it?

  2. Alternatively, was the prophecy specifically about the coming of the Kwisatz Haderach?

    Perhaps the Bene Gesserit's plan was for the Kwisatz Haderach to eventually arrive on Arrakis because of the extreme importance of that planet, and therefore seeded a myth there that would support their plans and ensure loyalty to him when he arrived. This seems very much in accordance with the way the Bene Gesserit operate, and they did know things about how the Kwisatz Haderach would present himself, but given how old the legend of Mahdi is, that their plans went awry, and that Paul was never supposed to be the Kwisatz Haderach, and yet things still lined up to an uncanny degree with him, this doesn't seem quite right.

  3. Could it all just be coincidence? That doesn't feel like a satisfying answer to me. There are few coincidences when it comes to either of the Kwisatz Haderachs that emerge in the books. But then again we are talking about a time long before the coming of the first Kwisatz Haderach.

Or perhaps there's another explanation?

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    Certain generic prophet tropes may eventually line up to at least one of a prominent person's actions to suggestible observers due to apophenia.
    – tbrookside
    Commented Apr 28 at 15:33
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    Is a self-fulfilling prophecy a real prophecy? Who can tell the difference?
    – Spencer
    Commented Apr 28 at 17:10
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    What is your definition of "real prophecy"? Without that it becomes very difficult to answer your question as posed.
    – Lexible
    Commented Apr 28 at 17:52
  • @Lexible it is entirely reasonable to ponder whether a Bene Gessert had somehow seen the golden path enough to instigate a breeding program that ultimately would lead to Paul and Leto II. I don't think classic Dune addresses it and prequel Dune if it did - has it's own problems for not being by Frank Herbert. The question is mathematically duel to was prescience driving the Bene Gessert breeding program in the first place - or (for example) did they merely want to see the male half of genetic memory Commented Apr 28 at 19:14
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    @Lexible Basically a "real prophecy" would be one that came from an actual act of prescience, e.g. any of the predictions Leto II makes that affect Heretics of Dune or Chapterhouse Dune. And to add to what lucasbachmann is saying, it also could be that earlier in the Bene Gesserit's history, someone had a prescient vision of the coming of the KH and used that as the basis for the myths spread by the Missionaria Protectiva, perhaps even without realizing it.
    – Bri Bri
    Commented Apr 28 at 22:58

2 Answers 2

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It feels like you're mixing up the concepts of Mahdi and Kwisatz Haderach here. I don't think they're necessarily in any way related.

The Mahdi concept just seems to be a generic Messiah-like figure. The Missionaria Protectiva took existing legends from the Fremen's "Zensunni" religion and adapted them so that a Bene Gesserit member in need could take advantage of them. There is little detail about what the Mahdi was supposed to do, apart from "lead them to paradise" (as the Terminology of the Imperium states) - we can presume that the Fremen adapted the legend over the generations.

On the other hand, the KH is a specific objective of the BG, namely to breed (again quoting the Terminology) a "male BG whose organic mental powers would bridge space and time". There's nothing there about messiah-hood, nor about doing anything to free any specific people, which are at the heart of the Mahdi legend.

A minor note on the "importance" of Arrakis: it's not a widely-held view, and contradicted by the later prequels, but to me it's clear from Dune itself that widespread use of the Spice was of relatively recent origin. I don't think there's a canonical reference to when the Fremen first arrived on Arrakis, nor when the MP planted their legends, but I think it's safe to say that it's many generations before the planet gained its later vital significance.

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    Also note the reference in the book to the prophetic figure of the "lisan al gaib" (voice from the outer world), which was separate from the "Kwisatz Haderach" (though the lisan al gaib may be synonymous with the Mahdi for the Fremen, I'm not sure). See my comment here about how Appendix 3 suggests ambiguity about whether the lisan al ghaib prophecy was actually planted by the Bene Gesserit
    – Hypnosifl
    Commented Apr 28 at 15:21
  • I suspect it's unlikely there's documentation that seeing the future motivated the Kwisatz Haderach breeding program. If that can't even be established then demonstrating equivalence between K.H. and Mahdi and Lisan al Gaib will be just as weak plus the additional problems of demonstrating equivalence - which your answer addresses. Commented Apr 28 at 19:29
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    I do agree that the Kwisatz Haderach and Mahdi are on the surface level separate concepts, particularly to the Bene Gesserit. But my question is about how Paul, as the potential Kwisatz Haderach, basically does fulfill the prophecy of the Mahdi. And not just in what he brings to the Fremen, but in the specific ways he's to be recognized: all of the traits attributed to the Mahdi are ones that Paul exhibits without even trying, and are characteristics you would expect of Kwisatz Haderach (e.g. knowing their ways via prescience, seeing through lies, etc.). Hence my question.
    – Bri Bri
    Commented Apr 28 at 22:55
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    @BriBri People would naturally be terrified if someone with those powers. So the Bene Gesserit were setting up a situation where the Kwisatz Haderach, wherever he appears, would be given reverence in the local culture instead of being executed. The book states explicitly that this became overlaid with the myth of the Mahdi, conflating the two into one mythical future being.
    – Graham
    Commented Apr 29 at 6:48
  • @BriBri I believe those would be traits of the KH, and so planted by the BG. Even "seeing through lies" is something some BG can do, no messiah needed.
    – Andres F.
    Commented Apr 29 at 13:14
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Kwisatz Haderach is the exclusive BG objective. However, Lady Jessica encounters subtle hints of that legend almost immediately after arrival.

Mahdi is a Zensunni concept, one that Fremen brought with them to Arrakis. Throughout the series there are allusions to their wandering past, which includes revelations that Reverend Mothers were their chroniclers before Arrakis and discovery of the Water of Life (which was but a refinement of the drugs used before Arrakis). Definitely Jessica's experience of sharing mind with Ramallo goes much much further back than just Arrakis.

What Fremen maybe do, however is to conflate Mahdi with Lisan-Al-Gaib. They definitely use them interchangeably. They do have a lot more leg to stand on the "The Voice from the Outer World", which is self-explanatory, but reinforced with the other explicit "Bene Gesserit mother" bit, and then with all the signs Paul gives them, without him really doing it knowingly (in terms of the prophecy; and/or with any reasons to do specific thing at specific time and place).

However, there is the Appendix III. Report on Bene Gesserit Motives and Purposes, which clearly states that there are some things about Fremen beliefs, that either contradict Missionaria Protectiva or, at the very least, shows extreme incompetence of Bene Gesserit in recognizing Paul as KH, IF they planted all these beliefs on Arrakis.

So, if we will take the conclusion of that Report at a face value, there is at least 50-50 chance that Missionaria Protectiva, when it came to Arrakis (which is a fact, as Reverend Mother Mohiam stated during Caladan visit), it just filled in the blanks to the already existing framework. And if that "fill-the-blanks" case was THE case, then MP plant to Arrakis was either a newbie or intentionally failed to report that, further strengthening the Report's conclusions...

Which brings me to the bottom line(s):

  1. Yes, it was a real prophecy,
  2. Possible, but since KH is mostly irrelevant to Fremen, this specific aspect of Paul may have been a planted legend, but coming to life with BG not noticing,
  3. Nope, not a coincidence. Just another, bigger plan.
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  • Missionaria Protectiva being based on anticipated traits of the Kwisatz Haderach isn't quite the same as a proper prophecy. Even I can predict the K.H. will be a really smart son of a B.G. mother. The problem here is we have a group with supernatural abilities using carnival tricks to do things that are potentially in their skill set. Commented Apr 29 at 17:47
  • @lucasbachmann - but the point of the answer is to show that KH-related bit of MP plant suite either didn't hold or was folded into the rest of the prophet-related ones, especially since KH is an actual goal of BG breeding program, which was ultra-secret and for sure this bit would not be in any legend. Second point of the answer is that, with obvious importance of Arrakis, BG displayed a stunning level of either ignorance or incompetence in recognizing ACTUAL REPORTING of Paul being identified with the prophecies, and then displaying proper characteristics of a prophecy personified.
    – AcePL
    Commented Apr 30 at 7:21

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