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I've been delving into the "Dune" movie and am particularly intrigued by the depiction of the Bene Gesserit. This group seems to be both revered and feared in the universe of "Dune." I am curious about a couple of aspects regarding their portrayal.

Why are the Bene Gesserit feared by other characters and factions within the "Dune" universe? What aspects of their presence or actions instigate this fear?

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    If you're really interest in Dune and all the lore, I'd recommend reading the books, they offer a much deeper dive into everything that the movies can cover in only a couple of hours.
    – DMfiend
    Jan 10 at 17:25
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    Essentially it's that they're a quite powerful and secretive organisation, which cares mostly for its own power, not the people they cooperate with. Being seen by common people as "witches" doesn't help, though.
    – Mithoron
    Jan 10 at 21:20

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The Bene Gesserit order tend to avoid publicly displaying many of their supernatural powers out of concern that they'll engender fear from others and cries of 'witchcraft!!'

They strongly prefer to act as consorts, wives and concubines of the rich and powerful and influence their behaviour to suit their own purposes. To that end they do allow some powers to be known about, mainly those that can be explained through excuses like 'advanced training' and 'good breeding'.

Publicised abilities include:

  • Truthsaying - the Bene Gesserit rent/sell their Truthsayers; women who possess the ability to sense and divine the truth of a statement made.

    “Why haven’t you ever bought a Bene Gesserit, Uncle?” Feyd-Rautha asked. “With a Truthsayer at your side—”

    Dune

  • Perfect genetics - Their offspring are known to be (almost) always fit and healthy.

  • Long life + Good Health - The Bene Gesserit are known to be long-lived and enjoy rude health, typically outliving a potential mate even if they marry someone younger. Unbeknownst to the general public this is down to a technique (known as "body balance") that means that they can remain young in perpetuity if they desire.

    “Are you sure of that? I’ve already sent word to the Sisterhood that Alia practices the unthinkable. Look at her! She’s not aged a day since last I …”
    “Oh, that!” He dismissed Bene Gesserit body balance with a wave of his hand. “I’m speaking of something else — a perfection of being far beyond anything humans have ever before achieved.”

    Dune

  • Tactical insight + business acumen - Bene Gesserit wives are trained in the management of Noble Houses (and their fiefdoms) and can act in the stead of their husband, anticipating their needs perfectly. Jessica's "business training" was one of the key reasons she was chosen by the Duke.

    “Busy! What is it that takes most of my time, Wellington? 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.” She compressed her lips, spoke thinly: “Sometimes I wonder how much my Bene Gesserit business training figured in his choice of me.”

    Dune

  • Knowledge of espionage and counter-espionage - They can detect enemies from the slightest evidence.

    Jessica sat remembering a lecture from her Bene Gesserit school days. The subject had been espionage and counter-espionage. A plump, happy-faced Reverend Mother had been the lecturer, her jolly voice contrasting weirdly with the subject matter.

    Dune

  • Sexual prowess - Bene Gesserit wives and concubines are known to be trained in the sexual arts to a considerable degree.

  • Translation - Bene Gesserit adepts speak all human language perfectly.

    “Tongues are the Bene Gesserit’s first learning,” Jessica said

    Dune


Hidden powers:

All of the above being said, the BG also have a raft of semi-supernatural abilities at their disposal that they don't talk about. This includes 'voice' (the subtle use of vocal commands, tone and body language that can be used to directly influence and basically command even the most powerful of individuals to do the bidding of the Bene Gesserit) as well as more esoteric abilities like 'inner voices', precognition and 'prana bindu' that tend to elicit instinctive hatred of strong and powerful women, so they're mostly kept in reserve unless absolutely needed, allowing the Bene Gesserit to claim that they're basically myths.


The Dune Encyclopedia also lists some of the activities that the Bene Gesserit were involved in that those in power may or may not have known about, but certainly weren't public.

Mater Pecuniam Collocarein charge of the investment portfolios (also, usually the chief negotiator with CHOAM) - [This indicates that the BG had CHOAM holdings as well as significant financial reserves of their own].

Procuratrixin charge of concubinage and arranged marriages [as discussed above]

Docitrix Vocisin charge of Voice use in political situations, also use of ''sealed tongue'' commands and "embedded" commands - [Evidently the BG were in the habit of using Voice to effect political changes and also to emplace hypnotic triggers into personages of potential future important].

Mater Salsain charge of the melange supply [The BG apparently had significant Spice holdings of their own]

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    Great detailed answer. I feel that 'prana bindu' gets relegated here to a bit of an afterthought, but their control of muscle and nerves makes them unparalleled hand-to-hand fighter, which doesn't get much of a mention in your answer. Jessica is (probably) only second to Paul in her fighting abilities in the original novel.
    – iandotkelly
    Jan 9 at 19:15
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    @iandotkelly - OPs question is 'why are they feared?' rather than just asking for a comprehensive list of their powers. I'm trying to identify what people (e.g. the public in general + powerful people) would know about them, and hence why they're feared. Nobody fears the BG because of their fighting skills because nobody knows about their fighting skills.
    – Valorum
    Jan 9 at 19:27
  • If I remember correctly, one of the reasons NOT to use the Voice more is that people subjected to it may realize they were manipulated. It's evident when the Voice is used to freeze someone on the spot. I don't remember if there's a more subtle use, the Docitrix Vocis quote seems to hint there is? Jan 10 at 9:30
  • Hmm, I don't think its unreasonable to suggest their fighting prowess is missing from your answer when you have a whole section on 'hidden powers' .... if you're trying to restrict yourself to what people would know about them, why have that in your answer at all?
    – iandotkelly
    Jan 10 at 15:42
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    @iandotkelly - In no version of the book, film, etc is Jessica teaching the Atreides army anything. In the 80s film the army use a 'weirding module' that had nothing to do with the Bene Gesserit
    – Valorum
    Jan 10 at 15:46
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This isn't a complete answer, but the other answers have missed what I think is an important point to make about the Bene Gesserit: they were legend weavers. The Bene Gesserit were deliberate manipulators of rumors and superstition, and certainly the air of mystery they cultivated about themselves was responsible for a great deal of the fear and distrust directed at them. Even setting aside the Missionaria Protectiva, most information about them, their real powers, their goals, was concealed - when Jessica reveals the power of the Voice to Hawat in the first book, the revelation that the power exists is as much a shock as the sensation itself. Characters like the Baron, Feyd-Rautha, even Gurney Halleck call them "witches" because of the implication of mysterious, sinister power. It's a classic trope - call them witch when you don't understand the things they can do.

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    I like this answer. They're feared and respected because they want to be. If they wanted to be ignored or loved they could just organise that instead.
    – Valorum
    Jan 10 at 11:20
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This group seems to be both revered and feared in the universe of "Dune."

Like all powerful group with significant influence, for centuries, they've been building coalitions, with a well-balanced use of common benefits and fear.

They also have some powers some people see as "magical"1:

A powerful social, religious, and political force, the Bene Gesserit is described as an exclusive sisterhood whose members train their bodies and minds through years of physical and mental conditioning to obtain superhuman powers and abilities that seem magical to outsiders2. Bene Gesserit

The ultimate goal of the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood, up to the end of the novel Dune, is the creation of a male Bene Gesserit they call the Kwisatz Haderach. They intend to achieve this superbeing through a massive human breeding program, which they have conducted for countless generations; using careful manipulations of relationships and breeding sisters to "collect" key genes, the Bene Gesserit have controlled and finessed bloodlines through the ages. Also called "the one who can be two places simultaneously" or "the one who can be many places at once", the Kwisatz Haderach (defined by Herbert as "The Shortening of the Way"), with mental powers that would bridge space and time and access to both male and female lines in Other Memory, will be an overt figure in the Bene Gesserit's manipulations and thrust upon the universe as a messiah. Bene Gesserit goals & strategies

Often mistaken for a religious order, the Bene Gesserit (also known as the Sisterhood) is an ancient organization of female spies, theologians, and scientists whose mystic origins and enhanced physical and mental prowess make their existence integral to societal order.

The Bene Gesserit resorted to influencing politics from the background before Paul Atreides assumed leadership of House Atreides. They preferred to stay in this role for over a millennium. The group succeeded at placing agents in all the important imperial courts and Houses to oversee major negotiations. Dune: Bene Gesserit Explained - History, Origins & Powers


1. Regardless of their ranks in the organization's hierarchy, each member can control every muscle and fiber of their body as they are masters in the disciplines of prana (breath) and bindu (muscles). This allows the members to simultaneously remain motionless and bend the last joint of their little toe, and deliver blows with extreme physical force. Their powers are such that the Bene Gesserit martial arts are not even centered on armed strikes. Instead, they can resort to unarmed attacks resulting in destructive physical blows and movement that's extremely fast and precise. This fighting style is usually referred to as "the weirding way" in the world of Dune.

2. The Voice is another major power that allows the Bene Gesserit to manipulate people by giving them orders in particular sound frequencies that only they themselves are resistant to. Then, the Bene Gesserit members trained as Truthsayers are particularly adept at analyzing people's speech and physical mannerisms to determine whether they're lying or speaking the truth. All the Sisters have significant and impressive control over their own bodies and fertility levels. They are able to alter their metabolism to even render poisonous substances harmless. These physical abilities make them integral in the Houses as poison tasters and concubines.

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    The striving for the kwizatz haderach, genetic program and inner voices were all kept secret from outsiders, as was their use of 'voice'
    – Valorum
    Jan 9 at 12:29

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