In Terminology of the Imperium, the glossary of the 1965 novel Dune, Herbert provided the following definition:
WATER OF LIFE: an "illuminating" poison ... Specifically, that liquid exhalation of a sandworm ... produced at the moment of its death from drowning which is changed within the body of a Reverend Mother to become the narcotic used in the sietch tau orgy. An "awareness spectrum" narcotic.
While "Water of Life" is the term used by the native Fremen of the planet Arrakis, the substance is referred to as spice essence by the Bene Gesserit and other groups starting in Dune Messiah (1969), the second novel in the series. Described as a blue liquid in Children of Dune (1976), the drug is noted in Chapterhouse: Dune (1985) to possess the "pungent odor" of "bitter cinnamon" associated with melange, the other, more important by-product of the sandworm life cycle.
The Bene Gesserit test their acolytes by feeding them the Water of Life in a ritual known as the spice agony (other poisons had been used before the discovery of the Water of Life on Arrakis). A skilled adept is able to transmute the poison safely within her body and becomes a Reverend Mother. Failure means death. The process also unlocks Other Memory, which gives Reverend Mothers access to the memories and personalities of their female ancestors.
Paul Atreides also perceives that the Water of Life could also be used to catastrophic effect to initiate a chain reaction which would destroy the sandworms and the spice-cycle ecosystem. With the power to destroy all the spice at its source, Paul is able to exercise a degree of control over both the Bene Gesserit and the Spacing Guild.
Notes and references
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