Specifically, I’m wondering if Bene Gesserit have actual “magic” (supernatural) abilities with their words, or if it’s simply psychological tricks using inflection, tone, and specific words.

Gesserit are often referred to as “witches” and many people believe that they are actually casting spells with their words, but this is could be just superstition, since cultural beliefs and religion are major parts of the world in Dune. However, Jessica was able to completely immobilize (I think) Gurney when he suspects her of treason.

Is the Gesserit ability to absolutely control somebody something like a Jedi mind trick, or is it merely just a moment of disarmament, an unexpected reaction by the controlee? Or, is it rather the result of millenia of psychological science combined with training and textbook knowledge of how certain people from certain places and contexts react to certain phrases and tones. That is, are the Gesserit tricks something that could be duplicated, like double-speech and other seemingly supernatural tricks, such as horoscopes and palm reading (the point here being that horoscopes and palm readings use clever and specific words to be vague enough to “predict” the future but specific enough to create belief in that prediction based on unknowingly common events in people’s lives)?

  • 4
    No, it's not magic. All of the powers seen are (supposedly) rooted in reality although the psychic powers and precognition are pretty hard to quantify as hard sci-fi
    – Valorum
    Dec 16, 2014 at 23:03
  • 1
    No - he's the Kwisatz Haderach, and something else entirely
    – HorusKol
    Dec 16, 2014 at 23:23
  • 1
    but Alia and Paul are heavy spice addicts. that is something else entirely.
    – ths
    Dec 17, 2014 at 0:55
  • 1
    Alia's ability is related to abomination, not BG training.
    – Lighthart
    Dec 17, 2014 at 2:14
  • 1
    the training the BG get only enhances the powers they already have undergoing the spice overdose they do to unlock all of the memories in their female line (i forgot exactly what its called) the BG are also descended from a group of psychic "sorceresses" who lived on a planet whos chemical composition affected them phsyically and allowed them to unleash psychic pulses that would kill organic life(basically fry your brain) wel current BG cant do that, they do retain some remnants of that power. the butlerian jihad trilogy basicly answers all questions about dune(weather you like the son or not)
    – Himarm
    Dec 17, 2014 at 14:45

6 Answers 6


At the end of the day, the difference between something being natural or supernatural lies in its compliance with natural laws. The problem with Dune when it comes to deciding about the supernaturality of phenomena is that it gives us very little to make such a decision:

With the exception of ecology, science is hardly described in the books and in particular nobody seems to care about the mechanisms behind the effects of spice, which is the source of almost all potentially supernatural abilities in Dune. This somewhat makes sense, as we are talking about microbiology here, which is arguably unfeasible due to the Butlerian commandments against any kind of computer, robot or even simple automatic devices. For related reasons, the mechanisms behind potentially supernatural abilities are hardly described in the books – at best, “genetic memory” is mentioned. Furthermore, most people having potentially supernatural abilities do not perceive these as supernatural.

Hence, what seems magic to us, may have been considered a biological effect by Frank Herbert and unless he made some specific statement about this that is unbeknownst to me, we have very little on our hands to decide about this. Thus, as I wrote before, when discussing supernaturality in Dune, a variation of Clarke’s Third Law comes to mind:

Any sufficiently advanced or weird biology is indistinguishable from magic.

Now, despite all this, the mechanisms behind some Bene Gesserit abilities were indeed described and thus they are one of the few potentially supernatural abilities for which I have little doubt that Herbert considered them to be natural:

  • The Weirding Way (i.e., the ability to move very quickly) was attributed to mental and physical training. Such a training is described to some extent in Children of Dune.
  • The Voice was attributed to reading the opponent’s speech and gestures and saying just the right words in the right way at the right time to crack him, i.e., what you describe as “is it rather the result of millennia of psychological science combined with training and textbook knowledge of how certain people from certain places and contexts react to certain phrases and tones”.
  • Some other abilities like increased perception were attributed to mental training.

Other Bene Gesserit abilities like truthsaying, ancestral memory, transmuting poison and controlling one’s aging were not even remotely described in such a way and I thus the uncertainty described above applies to them.

Note that all of the above is based on the four Dune books only, but should also apply to the last two books if Herbert did not drastically change his writing style.


In general, Herbert does not appear to favor a supernatural explanation, but rather chemical/biological/physical/social/political explanations

From The first Passage:

"I've studied with Thufir Hawat."

"The Great Revolt took away a crutch," she said. "It forced human minds to develop. Schools were started to train human talents."

"Bene Gesserit schools?"

She nodded. "We have two chief survivors of those ancient schools: the Bene Gesserit and the Spacing Guild. The Guild, so we think, emphasizes almost pure mathematics. Bene Gesserit performs another function."

"Politics," he said.

"Kull wahad!" the old woman said. She sent a hard glance at Jessica.

"I've not told him. Your Reverence," Jessica said.

The Reverend Mother returned her attention to Paul. "You did that on remarkably few clues," she said. "Politics indeed. The original Bene Gesserit school was directed by those who saw the need of a thread of continuity in human affairs. They saw there could be no such continuity without separating human stock from animal stock - for breeding purposes."

And Later in the first passage:

"Have you ever seen truthtrance?"

He shook his head. "No."

"The drug's dangerous," she said, "but it gives insight. When a Truthsayer's gifted by the drug, she can look many places in her memory - in her body's memory. We look down so many avenues of the past . . . but only feminine avenues." Her voice took on a note of sadness. "Yet, there's a place where no Truthsayer can see. We are repelled by it, terrorized. It is said a man will come one day and find in the gift of the drug his inward eye. He will look where we cannot - into both feminine and masculine pasts."

And much, much later:

Jessica shook her head, seeing the signs of disturbance in Harah's face. What have I borne? Jessica asked herself. A daughter who knew at birth everything that I knew . . . and more: everything revealed to her out of the corridors of the past by the Reverend Mothers within me,

"It's not just the things she says," Harah said. "It's the exercises, too: the way she sits and stares at a rock, moving only one muscle beside her nose, or a muscle on the back of a finger, or - "

"Those are the Bene Gesserit training," Jessica said. "You know that, Harah. Would you deny my daughter her inheritance?"

  • 3
    “In general, Herbert does not appear to favor a supernatural explanation, but rather chemical/biological/physical/social/political explanations” – not to forget the often chosen option of no explanation at all.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Dec 23, 2014 at 19:06
  • So that's what Paul meant when he said they would look into that dark place and see him and he would destroy them Dec 23, 2014 at 19:36

There is no obvious answer. In-series, the Bene Gesserit abilities are described as innate abilities raised to a high level through study and practice aided by philosophy, but not magical in the usual sense. So. Are there any such abilities encountered in current society? Well, sort of. Some folks are outrageously charismatic and persuasive, and they do well in politics and sales. I mean, "silver-tongued devil" barely comes close to describing some guys. Could these abilities be further selected for and enhanced by an organization? Shrug. Damfino. Some people are extraordinarily sensitive to cues in expression and body language, and they do well as, for instance, mentalists. But perhaps (just as an unfounded speculation) they're not actually reading cues, but rather reading minds. Could this be amplified by careful and systematic study? Once again, shrug. It's only true if it's true, and I don't see any way to predict one way or another.

  • 3
    I downvoted because this answer doesn't cover the more 'other-worldly' powers demonstrated by the sisters including limited telepathy and prognostication.
    – Valorum
    Dec 17, 2014 at 15:12
  • @Richard The question doesn't ask about any of the 'other-worldly' powers that they display, either, so I'm not sure that your downvote is at all appropriate. If the asker had asked about that, sure, but ... He answered the question that was asked, I have no idea why you expect him to answer unasked questions. Dec 17, 2014 at 19:09
  • @NathanC.Tresch - The question asked about the powers, TP and precognition are definitely among that list.
    – Valorum
    Dec 17, 2014 at 19:30
  • He specifically asks about the voice twice, then asks about "tricks", perhaps as an afterthought, I don't know. It looks to me like he's specifically asking about the Voice, and then throws "tricks" in there as context. Dec 17, 2014 at 19:56
  • @Richard I'm not sure Telepathy was ever a relevant widespread concept in Dune. Albeit Alia being in the Reverend Mother's mind proves to be a fairly unique exception to my statement.
    – Lighthart
    Dec 23, 2014 at 18:17

With regards to the ability to control people with words: There are people who are so good at hypnosis and "interrupt" methodology that they can literally compel a complete stranger to hand over their expensive watch, car keys, and wallets. The obvious parallel to the 'witch words' of the BG sisters, to me, implies that they are using psychology and perhaps some kind of natural charisma: The simplest explanation which fits all of the facts is most likely to be correct. I've seen demonstrations of this trick on Dateline NBC, among other shows, which suggests to me that it has basis in reality.

As to any other "tricks", which you fleetingly reference, I could write a book about them and so it's a little too general for me to address each one individually in this forum. Maybe if you edit the question and ask about specific abilities I'll amend my answer.

  • Also see this interview with Frank Herbert where he suggests a similar natural explanation: "I’m going to describe a man to you. You know this man. And I’m going to give you a task of controlling him by voice after I’ve described him and after you recognise him. I said, this is a man who was in World War I as sergeant, came home from World War I to his small town in the mid-west, married his childhood sweetheart and went into his father’s business, raised two children, who he didn’t understand…and they don’t understand him
    – Hypnosifl
    Mar 27 at 13:55
  • …He joined the VFW and the legion, went on every picnic, every convention, lived by the double standard (he thought). Now on the phone, strictly by voice, I want you to make him mad."
    – Hypnosifl
    Mar 27 at 13:55

Bene gesserit pushed boundaries of knowledge and ways of learning very far indeed, and effects can definitely be described as magic. But this is the influence of the sociopolitical order rather. People are often mystical, as illustrated by a lot of established religious taboos and the religion itself superficially resembling one found in our real world.

The training itself is described as millenia of genetic manipulation (obviously done the old-fashioned way of breeding) and expanding knowledge of the workings of human body and brain. Every ability the B.G. exhibit are explained (or is implied it's explainable) by the current state of science or sophistication of known phenomena.

For example there is no way to "absolutely control someone". One answer refers to "The Voice", which is a technique of influencing human mind by psychological, empathic and vocal means: evauate state of mind, evaluate effects so far of used means - emotions, reason, choice of words, voice modulation and/or intensity etc. Other method is mental conditioning (i.e. old-fashioned brain washing), probably in conjunction with muscular conditioning (muscle memory, i.e. training). Which can produce spectacular, albeit short-term effects. For example, soldier's training includes mental conditioning to obey and execute orders and muscular - weapons use and service, combat training etc. We know we can train mind to do some amazing things already.

Any prediction abilities B.G. displays are the outcome of thorough analysis of current situation, including very un-common knowledge. That was the source of "prediction" of Leto's fate. Also, there is terrific advantage to have multiple-lifetime of actual experiences to draw on. This may be confused with "psychic" powers as well. Every human is unique, but we're surprisingly repetitive in our life choices and errors.


The core suspension of disbelief involved with the Dune universe revolves around a drug unlocking human potential. That large percentage of our brains that we do not use, according to psychologists.

The Dune universe is far in the future, and different groups have unlocked different portions of humanity's unused potential. Bene Gesserit use skills and natural abilities, evolved and developed over time and influenced by spice overdose. Spice overdose gives them memories of how to do things, allows them to use abilities without needing time to learn them perfectly. Their mystical abilities are extensions of psychic abilities which we do not understand in current times, which humanity therefore views as 'magic'.

Similarly, the mentats have taken mental computation and logic to new heights. The navigators can fold space. All presented as abilities of their 'guilds' and wrapped in secrecy, yet nothing magical from the reader's perspective. Spice is the key to unlocking all of these abilities, and Kwisatz Haderach has multiple of the abilities, or perhaps all of them.

  • 1
    I cannot remember the 10 %-of-brain myth or something similar being used to explain abilities in Dune. The same goes for ancestral memory. Finally, navigators only fold space in the movie.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Dec 18, 2014 at 18:52
  • 1
    There is no 10% of brain reference in dune. Many of the powers work using the strength of your mind so maybe thats what confused him. Dec 18, 2014 at 19:36

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