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The Bene Gesserit sisterhood show similarities to orders of Catholic or Buddhist nuns, with their discipline, austerity, and high levels of education and organization ("gesserit" possibly alluding to the Jesuits), yet they also appear to have some sort of Middle Eastern influence. Their name could be Latin for "one who conducted herself properly", yet the word 'bene' is also very similar to Hebrew/Arabic for "children of -". E.g., in Arabic the name could mean "children of the peninsula". Some other points of interest:

  • their ideal evolved human is a messiah-figure referred to with a Hebrew term, K'fitzat haDerech, which means (very appropriately) "a shortcut";
  • in spite of not being very well-liked or trusted, BG's skills are so useful that sisters are important members of most courts and other associations of elites (like Jewish courtiers during the Middle Ages);
  • very interested in bloodlines and lineages, similar to Jews and Muslims;
  • they embody some common anti-Semitic stereotypes, the most prominent being their association with sinister magic ("witches"), use of casuistry ("Talmudic logic"), and that all BG members, wherever they are, comprise a secret cabal loyal only to itself, that conspires to control humanity and its development, for its own mysterious ends.

Given all this, what are the BG's origins (philosophically/religously, rather than ethnically) in the Dune universe?

  • 2
    Note that the phrase "bene gesserit" is Latin, and part of a recognised legal term: "quamdiu se bene gesserit", as long as he shall behave himself well. – Daniel Roseman Aug 16 '15 at 8:53
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The following refers only to the six books written by Frank Herbert.

First some facts:

  1. The Bene Gesserit maintain a breeding program.

  2. The Bene Gesserit are very sexual. Sexual techniques are part of their training and they employ specially trained males for their own sexual satisfaction in their bases. They actively command their members to have themselves impregnated by selected males for their breeding program and use their wiles to achieve their goals.

  3. The ultimate goal of the Bene Gesserit is preserving and improving mankind. This is mostly elaborated on in Chapterhouse: Dune. The breeding program, the Kwisatz Haderach, the messianic undertones and power are only means to this end.

  4. The Bene Gesserit regard religion mostly as a tool to manipulate other people, organisations and mankind as a whole. They employ “religious engineers” for this purpose.

    An example (which may be considered a spoiler for Heretics of Dune):

    On one occasion, the Bene Gesserit find out that the Bene Tleilax follow the Zensunni faith, a syncretism of Islam and Buddhism. One of them instantly starts to pretend to adhere to the same faith to convince the leader of the Bene Tleilax to collaborate with them.

  5. I cannot remember any Bene Gesserit performing some sort of worship or mentioning God in way that implies its existence.

  6. The Bene Gesserit were women.

Points 4 and 5 suggest that the Bene Gesserit do not originate from some sort of religion (at least one that considers itself a religion). Points 1, 2 and 6 make a lot of religions unlikely as origins, namely all anti-evolutionary, anti-sexual or anti-women religions.

Points 1, 2 and 4 are certainly controversial in most if not all of today’s societies; point 6 is at least peculiar. Taken together, these points should exclude almost any contemporary or past notable organisation that is open about their goals. At least I would not know any organisation that is even remotely similar to the Bene Gesserit.

From this follows that if the Bene Gesserit originate from any contemporary organisation, it would be secret or at least keep its goals secret – i.e., your typical secret order from conspiracy theories (with the exception of point 3). This fits insofar as the Bene Gesserit still keep most of their goals secret when the events of Dune happen.

  • So there's nothing that indicates their origins? That's disappointing, given the original 6 novels', and the prequels and sequels', details about the origin of other groups such as the Fremen from the Zensunni Wanderers (via Salusa Secundus), or the Bene Tleilax from the Tlulaxa merchant guilds, etc. In spite of their secrecy, one would hope there was at least some information! – Meir Illumination Aug 16 '15 at 12:41
  • @MeirIllumination: There may be something in the prequels. But I think I would have heard of it, if it connected the Bene Gesserit to any contemporary organisation. – Wrzlprmft Aug 16 '15 at 13:25
  • I think your assessment of the factual points is overly simple. You seem to have an impression that a majority of religions are and mostly have been anti-evolutionary, anti-sexual, or anti-women. That's simply not true. Really, only point 4 is counter-intuitive for a religiously originating group. However, existential nihilism within a religion's framework is not new or unique, and often ends up looking like humanism, and we could argue the BG are humanists. – fredsbend Mar 23 at 1:30
  • @fredsbend: You seem to have an impression that a majority of religions are and mostly have been anti-evolutionary, anti-sexual, or anti-women. That's simply not true. – Name a big exception; honestly. Any religion that is mainstream somewhere in the world has to be compatible with the society’s rules, which they either are by construction or interaction. Until very recently, all major societies were utterly male-dominated and had a culture of strongly controlling sexuality (which is to be somewhat expected given that medicine only recently has overcome high children and mother mortalities). – Wrzlprmft Mar 23 at 8:18
  • @Wrzlprmft Catholicism is neither anti-evolutionary nor anti-women, but I know you won't agree. I'd credit that to unfamiliarity and bad press. You can make the case they're anti- sexual, then and today, but attitudes on sex have definitely been fluid over the ages, and you can make the case they aren't anti-sexual. Only a small subset of christianity is actually anti-evolutionary, so that's definitely way off. – fredsbend Mar 23 at 12:12
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Some alternate info.

Herbert uses "Bene" for at least one other order. It seems to mean something like "school" in the Dune Universe.

There are Jews in the Dune universe and one Jewish woman is a wild reverend mother. Her bene gesserit training is a source of conflict with her father who seems to think Bene Gesserit is not compatible with their Jewish faith.

Bene Gesserits are trying to breed a Kwistats Haderach. They don't consider this hypothetical man to be a Messiah. It's the Fremen who are looking for a Messiah and happen to find it in the Kwisats Haderach. There is some reference that the Bene Gesserit had been the ones to add a Messiah to the Fremen religion, but Messiah was not a theme for Bene Gesserit themselves.

Herbert had a lot of Muslim overtones as in Fremen being circumcised and the Butlerian Jihad.

A Bene Dessert mother didn't automatically make a girl another Bene Gesserit. They were recruited and they were women only, so they weren't a population.

Conclusion:
They were more like what he called them, "an order". They were more analogous to Knights Templar or the Knights of Malta, crossed with kung-fu masters in Chinese stories. Not that they went around karate chopping everyone, but they reached almost superhuman abilities by intense secret training and discipline and were part of a secretive but powerful organization.

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