The Question Concerning the Giant Sandworm in Dune

If Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965) is the greatest of science fiction sagas, then the sandworm of the planet Arrakis might be the greatest of science-fiction animal. Worshiped by the indigenous people of Arrakis, the Freemen, Shai-Hulud (in the language of the Freemen) is a type of giant annelid that could grow up to exceed 400 meters in length and a 100 meters in thickness. The Shai-Hulud’s circular mouth could reach 80 meters in diameter and contain over 1,000 or more carbo-silica crystal teeth. The adult sandworm was made up of segments that could range anywhere between 100 and 400 in number, and each segment contained a primitive nervous system. Respiration was accomplished through skin pores. Most of the worm’s nutrients were in the form of gases, thus the worm had no circulatory system as such. Shai-Hulud was a great deity to the Freemen, who called it “Old Man of the Desert,” “Grandfather of the Desert,” and “Old Father Eternity,” respectively. Shai-Hulud were legendarily indestructible and had life spans potentially of thousands of years. The Biblical “Hymn to Shai-Hulud” is testament to the identification of the sandworm to Leviathan or the “Great Water Creature” and perhaps to “The Furry Whale” of divine legend. Nonetheless, Shai-Hulud manifested fundamentally sacred connotations for the Freemen. Freemen developed the ritual art of riding sandworms through the skill of worm-charming and the use of specially designed maker hooks. The underrated film version of Dune by David Lynch (1984) gives us a glimpse of the skill necessitated for riding Shai-Hulud.