Dune and Greek Mythology: What’s in Common?

Discover the influences from Greek mythology that informed Frank Herbert’s famous science-fiction novel, Dune.

Apr 12, 2024By Daniel Soulard, BA Classical Civilizations

dune greek mythology common


Dune, a science-fiction novel written in 1965 by Frank Herbert, follows the story of Paul Atreides, a young man whose family accepts stewardship of the planet Arrakis for the interstellar empire. The planet is a harsh desert wasteland that is sparsely populated but is the only source of a valuable resource known as “spice.” As such, many of the empire’s factions desire control of the planet and are often at odds with each other. Paul’s father, Leto Atreides, was betrayed by the emperor and a rival faction, setting Paul off on a journey to avenge his father. How does this story connect with Greek mythology?


Leto: Parent of the Divine Twins

latona leto diana artemis apollo
Latona (Leto) and Her Children, Apollo and Diana (Artemis), by William Henry Rinehart, 1874. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Leto Atreides was the Duke of the ocean planet Caladan and the father of Paul Atreides. His role in Dune is mostly to serve as a plot device, his death being the catalyst that sets his son off on a quest for vengeance.


However, Leto is also the father of Paul and Alia. This clearly connects him with the Greek goddess Leto, after whom he was named. In Greek myth, Leto was the mother of the divine twins Apollo (god of prophecy, among others) and Artemis. While Paul and Alia are not twins, they each gain supernatural powers through their exposure to spice and the Waters of Life.


Paul Atreides

apollo slaying python drawing
Drawing of Apollo slaying Python, Anonymous, 17th century CE. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


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Paul Atreides is the son of Leto Atreides, the Duke of Caladan, and Lady Jessica, a member of a powerful organization of women with mystic powers called the Bene Gesserit. Paul shares several similarities with the Greek god Apollo. For starters, one of his parents is named after Apollo’s divine mother, Leto, and his own name is a shortening of Apollo.


Paul’s journey throughout Dune also mirrors Apollo’s. The son of Zeus, Apollo is an oracular god with the power to see the future. In one of Apollo’s traditional myths, the god slays the great serpent Python. There are multiple versions of the myth. However in one of the most popular, Apollo kills the Python because the serpent had tormented his mother while she was pregnant with him. After killing the serpent, Apollo set up his shrine, known as Delphi, and became the preeminent oracular god in Greek culture.


In Dune, Paul has the gift of prophecy and near godlike prescience of the future. In order to establish himself, he must master a giant serpentine creature. For Apollo, it was the Python, and for Paul, sandworms, both when he rides one as a rite of passage in Fremen culture and when he drinks the Water of Life, a liquid produced by young sandworms at the moment of death. Surviving this ordeal serves as proof that he is the Fremen messianic figure, Lisan al-Gaib.


Atreides: Sons of Atreus

paul atreides jessica dune movie
Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides and Rebecca Ferguson as Lady Jessica in Dennis Villeneuve’s Dune, 2021. Source: bubblegumclub.co.za


The family name of Atreides takes its root from the ancient Greek patronymic meaning “son of Atreus,” Atreus being a hero of Greek mythology. His descendants were collectively known as the Atreidai, with the most famous being Agamemnon, the mythical king of Mycenae from whom the family in Dune claims descent. Agamemnon is known for his role in the Iliad, the ancient epic recounting the final weeks of the Trojan War. He is also the titular character in Aeschylus’ 5th-century Agamemnon. The play was the first in Aeschylus’ trilogy titled Oresteia and tells the story of Agamemnon’s return from Troy, his subsequent death, and the curse of familial violence that afflicts his family. This curse is commonly known as “the curse of Atreus.”


The Curse of Atreus

punishment tantalus engraving curse
Tantalus, by Guilio Sanuto, ca.1557-1570. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


The curse of Atreus is a hereditary curse of murder, cannibalism, and adultery that afflicts the descendants of Tantalus and reasserts itself with each new generation. It afflicts Pelops, Atreus, Thyestes, and Agamemnon and ends with Orestes.


The curse began with Tantalus, the progenitor of the House of Atreus. He sought to test the omniscience of the gods, and so he killed his own son, Pelops, to feed him to them. Most of the gods immediately knew what had happened and didn’t partake, but Demeter, distracted by the abduction of her daughter Persephone, ate a piece. As punishment, Tantalus was cast into the underworld, where he would spend eternity standing in a pool of water beneath a fruit tree. Whenever he reached to grab a fruit, the branches would rise beyond his reach, and when he would bend to drink, the water would recede. The gods took pity on the butchered Pelops and so brought him back to life. However, Tantalus’s sinful murder and attempt to trick the gods would haunt his family which would hence become entrapped in a circle of vengeance and murder that would end with the myth of Orestes.


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A still from Dennis Villeneuve’s Dune, 2021. Source: dunemovie.net


In Dune, Paul is bound by duty to avenge his father’s death, following a bitter cycle of murder and revenge against the Harkonnen family. This cycle has repeated for millennia and reasserts itself with Paul, only to end when the last member of a family is dead or the two families have made peace. But with each new murder, peace becomes increasingly more impossible. With the revelation that Lady Jessica is a Harkonnen, Paul’s vengeance for his father requires the deaths of his grandfather and cousins.


Paul is also conflicted with his role as the Fremen’s messianic figure Lisan al-Gaib. They believe that he is going to lead them on a jihad against the empire that has oppressed them for so long. Due to Paul’s prophetic visions, he knows that this future will result in the deaths of billions, but he also sees that if he doesn’t lead them, the death toll could be exponentially worse. At the end of 2024’s Dune: Part Two, Paul makes his decision.

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By Daniel SoulardBA Classical CivilizationsDaniel holds a Bachelor’s degree in Classical Civilizations from Concordia University, Montreal, and is currently applying for his Master’s in the same field. His area of interest are Greek history from the Classical period through the conquests of Alexander the Great, as well as the ancient Greek language. He loves nothing more than to share his passion for history with anyone who will listen, and even with those who won’t.