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The Theology of Dune

Ever noticed all the Christian symbolism 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.

Rather listen than read? Here's our podcast episode covering all this material: 

Interested in the Theology of Dune? How about the Theology of all the Sci-Fi in the Galaxy? I have written the following book to cover exactly that. The Theology of Sci-Fi covers Star Wars, Dune, Asimov's Foundation Series, The Matrix, Superman, and the classics of science of fiction:

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 or Christ Figure

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. 

Paul is also known as Muad'Dib to the Fremen:

The name Muad'Dib comes from the name of a kangaroo mouse, a small rodent that lives on the planet Arrakis ... which the internet has fallen in love with.  

A shadow resembling the Muad'Dib mouse is visible on Arrakis' second moon, as well as on a constellation. Paul Atreides takes the name Muad'Dib when he becomes a member of Stilgar's Fremen tribe.

The term Kwisatz Haderach is also likely derived from the Hebrew-Kabbalistic term, Kefitzat Ha'derech. In Hebrew, Kefitzat Ha'derech, 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.[1] This is basically describing teleportation or, in Catholic terms, bi-location, a hallmark of living saints.

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 the Fremen's prophesies concerning the Messiah, including ... 
  • "The sleeper has awakened": The Water of Life is a Messianic fulfillment, the passage through death and new life. More on the Water of Life at the end of this article.  
  • To fulfill another prophesy, 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.[2]  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 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.[3] 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".[4]

Frank Herbert wrote a 1977 essay "Sandworms of Dune" describing the function of sandworms in his story.[2]  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.

Coincidentally, remember which actor played St. Joseph in the Nativity Story?  

That's right! Oscar Isaac, who also portrays Duke Leto in Denis Villeneuve's 2021 Dune:

Lady Jessica as the Virgin Mary

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

Speaking of the Bene Gessarit, the title "Bene Gesserit" resembles an epithet of the Jewish people, Bene Jeshurun (בְּנֵי יְשֻׁרוּן), especially as "Gesserit" is pronounced with a soft "G". "Bene Jeshurun" means, roughly "Sons of The Just", with יְשֻׁרוּן also taken to be a synonym for Israel.

The Bene Gesserit were long prophesied to (and had been working for hundreds of generations) to bring forth the Kwisatz Haderach Messiah. Likewise, Lady Jessica 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." For hundreds of generations, the people of Israel were awaiting the Virgin who would give birth to the Messiah, the Messiah who would "crush the serpent's head". 

Perhaps most interesting, Muslims call the Blessed Mother the Sayyida, or Lady, while the Fremen appoint Lady Jessica as a Sayyadina. The term Sayyadina means "friend of God" in the Dune language of Chakobsa and was used by the Fremen to describe their priestesses who would drink the Water of Life and become Reverend Mothers.

The Quran describes all the major points in the life of the Virgin Mary - the Annunciation, the Visitation, and the Nativity. Angels are depicted as addressing the Blessed Mother and saying:

O Mary, God has chosen you, and purified you; He has chosen you above all the women of creation. (Quran 3:42)

Above all the women of the earth! This is similar to Elizabeth’s address of Mary, “blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb” (Luke 1).

To the Muslims, the Blessed Mother is the true Sayyida, or Lady. The only serious rivals to Mary would be Mohammed’s daughter, Fatima, and his wife, both of whom are numbered along with Mary as the four greatest women in Islamic history.

Nevertheless, after the death of Fatima, Mohammed wrote, “Thou shalt be the most blessed of all the women in Paradise, after Mary." Fatima, herself, is even known to have said, "I surpass all women, except Mary."

Fremen as the Jews or Israelites or Hebrews

The Hebrew people were abused and colonized by the Romans, or the Harkonnen in Dune. The Messiah leads the Jews to freedom. Just as Moses freed the Israelites, Jesus Christ makes the Jews "free-men" or "Fremen".

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 Missionaria Protectiva could also be compared to the diaspora of the Hebrew people which made for the easy spread of Christianity.

Perhaps Herbert is using the Missionaria Protectiva to provide cynical commentary on Christian evangelization and Muslim subjugation of primitive peoples.

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

We read the following from St. Paul's Letter to the Ephesians:

Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead,
and Christ shall give you light. (Eph 5:14)

Sound familiar?

Paul screams out to the ghost of his father, "the sleeper has awakened!" He does this after drinking from the Water of Life. Why? Because like Christ, he has passed through death to awake on the other side.

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."

Dune and Christianity Footnotes

[1] Weingrad, Michael, "Jews of Dune," Jewish Review of Books: March 29, 2015.
[2] Herbert, Frank, "Sandworms of Dune", O'Reilly, Tim (ed.). The Maker of Dune: Thoughts of a Science Fiction Master. Berkley Books.
[3]  "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.
[4] 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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  1. Gee twisting a scifi work written to expose the baselessness and fiction of human created religion gods & concocted messiah myths to then JUSTIFY the same religions as valid real is a joke laughable. I believe in blue fairies and will link all clipped selectively edited writings, comments & essays to make my belief justified. Go Blue Fairies the key to all being & life eternal. You blasphemer if you deny, wee.

    1. You think Dune was written "to expose the baselessness and fiction of human created religion gods & concocted messiah myths"? That is, itself, a baseless belief, LOL. You've got too see at least a little irony in accusing me of your own fallacies, right?

      What Dune ultimately shows us is that you cannot create a great hero story without reference to the true Messiah, the Hero of heroes, the Once and Future King of kings, Jesus Christ. Christ leaves an indelible mark on our imaginations.

  2. This is obviously well researched and shows that you've actually read Dune, but fails to understand or acknowledge Herbert's inherently cynical attitude towards religion. Dune is all about how governments and the powerful use religion as a tool to enhance their control over the masses. That's exactly what the missionaria protectiva is. Paul & Jessica used it to their advantage to exploit the Fremen. Paul is not a true messiah and savior of the Fremen. He's an opportunistic leader who used the Fremen to aid in his own survival and rise to power. While he's certainly imbued with certain powerful traits, and the biblical connections are obvious, it's a terrible misreading of Dune to believe that Paul is a hero or true messiah figure. It was the Fremen's blind belief in him that led to them spreading terrible religious violence across the universe in the jihad.

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  4. The Fremen are clearly Muslim bedouininspired if we go by the author's words. Jessica is most certainly not a virgin mary expy, she's explicitly a concubine who played god to give Leto a son. How do you come away from reading dune where Paul has billions killed, directly manipulates everyone around him, compares himself to Hitler, and somehow think he's a Christ expy? If anything he's the anti-christ.

    1. (A) The sequel is literally titled Dune: Messiah. "Christ" is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word "Messiah". The books are full of Hebrew-inspired words. It's ultimately a synchresis of multiple religions. Saying it's Muslim-only is just missing the obvious or overlaying an alternative narrative.
      (B) Even if your interpretation is that the core of these books is a negative view of religion ... the core of these books is still religion.