The Theology of Dune


Ever noticed all the Christian symbolism symbols in Frank Herbert's Dune Series?

The Orange-Catholic Bible is a clue that much more lies beneath the dune-covered surface of this science-fiction masterpiece. From the Messiah-figure of the Kwisatz Haderach to the Flight into the Desert of Arrakis, there is quite a bit of Christian symbolism in Frank Herbert's epic Dune series.


Dune is one the great classics of science-fiction. It inspired, among others, George Lucas who conceived of another desert planet, Tatooine, and the Messianic-figures who would arise from it.


Here are the Christian symbols and connections that I have noticed reading and re-reading Dune Series. Please comment below and share you own insights into the Christian themes, motifs, and symbols hidden within Dune:

Paul Atreides, the Kwisatz Haderach, or Muad'Dib (Fremen) - The Messiah

The Kwisatz Haderach is the Messianic figure of the Dune universe who will lead the people to "true freedom" and the Promised Land. The desert Messiah is known as the Kwisatz Haderach to the Bene Gessarit. He is known as Muad'Dib to the Fremen.

When explaining the term "Muad'Dib" to Duke Leto, Thufir Hawat actually describes the Muad'Dib as following the Messianic pattern.


Like Christ, Paul Atreides is also the son of a king (or a Duke). Also, like Christ, Paul Atreides must go undergo a series of trials or temptations, mostly in the desert.

  • Paul Atreides is first tested by Reverend Mother Gaius Mohiam with the Gom Jabbar, a meta-cyanide poisoned needle. This also foreshadows his drinking of the poisonous Water of Life.
  • Paul Muad'Dib is then tested by the Water of Life after being received into the ranks of the Fremen. Paul takes this ordeal upon himself, knowing it is his Messianic destiny to do so. 
  • After surviving the ordeal of drinking the Water of Life, Paul Muad'Dib fulfills one of the Fremen's prophesies concerning the Messiah. Paul must go into the desert and conquer Shai-Hulud, the great sandworm. In this sense, the Sandworm is like satan, the serpent, which Christ must overcome through a series of temptations - or trials as it is for Paul Atreides. 

The Fremen viewed the great sandworms as physical embodiments of the One God of their original Zensunni religion, rather than a satanic figure. As will be discussed below, this is not necessarily a contradiction, as Judaism and Christianity both exposed many pagan religions as worshiping demons instead of the one, true God. 


Frank Herbert wrote a 1977 essay "Sandworms of Dune" describing the function of sandworms in his story.[1]  Sandworms, Herbert said, provide the danger and mystery of terra incognita. Paul Atreides must confront this terror to transform and then overcome his enemies. Great power and knowledge must come at a great price. This is why Paul must risk being devoured by the sandworm Shai-Hulud and the madness of the consuming the Water of Life, the extract of the sandworm.

Lady Jessica first notices the Muad'Dib among the constellations in the desert manual following their escape from Baron's men. The Muad'Dib is the desert mouse, and the tail of its constellation points north. Similarly, the Messiah had its own star among the Hebrews. You can read more about the constellation Leo and the Lion of Judah here.

The term Kwisatz Haderach is also likely derived from a Hebrew term. In Hebrew, K'fitzat ha-Derekh, literally "the Leap of the Way," describes the way an initiate may travel some distance instantaneously, even appearing to be in two or more places at once.

The Sandworms, Shai-Hulud - Dragons, Satan

The Sandworms were the massive, native life-forms of the planet Arrakis. The Sandworms inhabited and were able to travel within and beneath the vast deserts of Dune. The Sandworms were also the source of the Spice Melange.

As described above, the Fremen viewed the Sandworms as the physical embodiments of the One God of their original Zensunni religion. The Fremen called the Sandworm by various names, notably "The Maker" and Shai-Hulud, which could be translated as "Old Man of the Desert", "Old Father Eternity", or "Grandfather of the Desert".

Frank Herbert describes the sandworms of Dune as inspired by the "archetypal black beast," who lives underground in a cavern and hoards treasure.[2] Herbert listed examples like the dragon in Beowulf and the dragon of Colchis which guarded the Golden Fleece from Jason and the Argonauts. 



Like these dragons, the Sandworms of Arrakis "guard" the melange deposits. In the novels, the Sandworms are occasionally referred to as "dragons of the desert".[3]

Frank Herbert wrote a 1977 essay "Sandworms of Dune" describing the function of sandworms in his story.[1]  Sandworms, Herbert said, provide the danger and mystery of terra incognita. Paul Atreides must confront this terror to transform and then overcome his enemies. Great power and knowledge must come at a great price. This is why Paul must risk being devoured by the sandworm Shai-Hulud and the madness of the consuming the Water of Life, the extract of the sandworm.

Frank Herbert provided the following description of the archetypal nature of the Sandworms:

The elements of any mythology must grow from something profoundly moving, something which threatens to overwhelm any consciousness which tries to confront the primal mystery. Yet, after the primal confrontation, the roots of this threat must appear as familiar and necessary as your own flesh. For this, I give you the sandworms of Dune. [...] the extension of human lifespan cannot be an unmitigated blessing. Every such acquisition requires a new consciousness. And a new consciousness assumes that you will confront dangerous unknowns — you will go into the deeps.

Like the dragons depicted in the Bible, Herbert's sandworm-dragons are supposed to be confronted and subjugated, like satan and sin. They are to be slain, as Adam and Eve failed to do.

Duke Leto as St. Joseph, the foster-father of the Messiah

Duke Leto is Saint Joseph, who takes his family into the desert of Egypt, or in this case the planet "Dune" or Arakkis. However, Duke Leto taking his family to Arakkis is more like taking them into King Herod's camp.

Lady Jessica as the Virgin Mary

Mary, who descends from the line of David. Similarly, there is a matriarchal line of Bene Gessarit in Dune.


She is prophesied to be, as Stilgar says, "the Bene Gessarit of legend whose son will lead us to paradise." The prophesy of an immaculate virgin who would give birth to the Messiah is the oldest prophesy in Christianity. See the following on Genesis 3:15, called the proto-evangelium or "first Gospel."

Fremen as the Jews or Israelites

The Hebrew people abused and colonized by the Romans (Harkonnen), whom the Messiah leads to freedom (i.e. "free-men").

The Fremen are also like the Hebrew slaves in Egypt. Both are suffering under the yoke of Pharoah's or the Harkonnens' tyranny. Both are awaiting a Moses-like figure to "free" them, leading an Exodus into the Promised Land. Stilgar describes Paul Muad'Dib as the Prophet they call the Mahdi, whom they believe is "The One Who Will Lead Us to Paradise".

Moses, himself, prophesied about the coming Messiah at Deuteronomy 18:15, saying "The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like unto me from among you, from your brethren—him you shall heed." Similarly, in the 1984 Dune movie, Dr. Kynes remarks on Paul Atreides' adroitness with a stillsuit, reciting the prophesy: "He shall know your ways as if born to them."


The military aspect of the Fremen is especially interesting. Many of the Jews expected a military conqueror for their Messiah. The Messiah was prophesied to be the Lion of Judah, who would overthrow the power of the Romans. Surprisingly, the Lion of Judah came as the Lamb of God.

Missionaria Protectiva

The Missionaria Protectiva is depicting a dark version of religious evangelization and missionary work. The Missionaria Protectiva was called the "black arm of superstition" for Bene Gesserit Sisterhood. The Missionaria Protectiva sowed the seeds of superstition in primitive cultures throughout the known universe. Later, once the seeds sprouted into full-fledged legends, the Sisterhood would use this to their advantage. Despite such an ill intent, the legends proved to be true.

The Missionaria Protectiva is like the Christian Missionaries through history, especially during the Age of Discovery. The The Missionaria Protectiva could also be compared to the diaspora of the Hebrew people which made for the easy spread of Christianity.

The Baron Harkonnen as King Herod or Pharoah

The Baron Harkonnen is a King Herod figure. He is also a Pharaoh figure, given the desert background. Both figures attempted to abort the power of their rivals by killing the child who would be king. King Herod did this through the Slaughter of the Innocents at Bethlehem and elsewhere.

As mentioned above, the Fremen are like the Hebrew slaves in Egypt. Both are suffering under the yoke of Pharoah's or the Harkonnens' tyranny. Like Herod's Slaughter of the Innocents, pharaoh also instructed the midwives to kill the Hebrew children.


The Orange-Catholic Bible

The mention of a Bible speaks for itself. It appears that much of the Bible as we know it has survived into the future in the Dune universe. The mention of this Bible may even be Herbert's way of connecting our universe to that of Dune.

The color "orange" is especially interesting. In this context, orange typically represents the Protestant Irish. This may speak to an ancient reunion of Protestant and Catholic in the Dune universe.


The Water of Life

The Water of Life is a Sacrament in the Dune universe. In particular, the Water of Life corresponds to either Baptism or the Tree of Life.

In Dune, the Water of Life was a poisonous blue liquid which came from the bile of an immature sandworm. It was used by the Bene Gesserit to transform their Sisters into Reverend Mothers. If one was untrained in prana/bindu body control, the substance was lethal. The smallest amount of the Water of Life would kill someone or cause incredible agony.


The connection to Baptism is in the name of Water of Life, itself. In the waters of Baptism, we pass through death to new life. We become Christians, which literally means anointed (with water), and we become new creations. Drinking the Water of Life is like dying. In fact, before Paul Atreides, any man who drank the Water of Life did die.

The Water of Life is also like another sacrament, the Eucharist. Typologically, the Eucharist is the new fruit of the Tree of Life. The phrasing of the Water of Life corresponds to the Tree of Life. What's more, if one eats or drinks the Eucharist unworthily, according to 1 Corinthians 11:27, drinks "death upon himself." Drinking the Water of Life is how one determines she is worthy of becoming a Sayyadina or Reverend Mother.

Quotes from the Saints appear within Dune

Lady Jessica at p. 85: "What is it Saint Augustine said? she asked herself. 'The mind commands the body and it obeys. The mind orders itself and meets resistance.' Yes--I am meeting more resistance lately. I could use a quiet retreat by myself."


Footnotes

[1] Herbert, Frank, "Sandworms of Dune", O'Reilly, Tim (ed.). The Maker of Dune: Thoughts of a Science Fiction Master. Berkley Books.
[2]  "Unpublished interview with Frank Herbert and Professor Willis E. McNelly," February 3, 1969. FH: And I made it, classically, the archetypal black beast, the one who lives underground in the cavern, with the gold.
WM: I see. OK., right. Well, this is the dragon of Beowulf, who lives in the cave.
FH: Yes.
[3] Herbert, Frank (1976), Children of Dune: "'My vision', he said. 'Unless we restore the dance of life here on Dune, the dragon on the floor of the desert will be no more.' Because he'd used the Old Fremen name for the great worm, she was a moment understanding him. Then: 'The worms?'"

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