If you’re a fan of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, you likely already know your Aunts from your Marthas. The series, which is based upon Margaret Atwood‘s classic novel of the same name, explores the terrifying world of Gilead, in which fertile women’s wombs are co-opted by the infertile elite. Now that Season 5 has finally arrived, it’s the perfect time to refresh your Gilead knowledge. Here’s your ultimate glossary for The Handmaid’s Tale.
In the unsettling world of Gilead, women are categorized according to their usefulness, which boils down to whether or not they can procreate. Handmaids are fertile women who are “selected” to carry the children of commanders and their wives.
These women are considered to be “damaged” due to their actions pre-Gilead, which might mean that they had affairs, married divorced men, were openly gay, or had abortions. Because of their perceived crimes, they’re forced into servitude as Handmaids. Many of them already had children of their own before Gilead, but these kids have since been rehomed with elite families throughout the country.
After training to become Handmaids, these women are placed with a Commander and his Wife, and forced to have sex in a horrifying “ceremony.” They wear red dresses and cloaks, with a white bonnets known as “Wings,” which act as blinkers in preventing them from seeing much of the world around them. They also take the name of their Commander. For instance, when June becomes Fred Waterford’s Handmaid, she becomes known as Offred, because she is “Of Fred.”
Sure, horror movies are scary, but Aunt Lydia might be the most terrifying TV villain of all time. While Handmaids are lauded for their childbearing abilities, Aunts are inherently important to the country’s infrastructure, as they prepare the wayward women for their new roles as surrogate mothers.
Aunts are usually wise, childless women who are trusted by those in power. They oversee household placements, track pregnancies, lead birthing events, and “protect” Handmaids. However, that so-called protection often involves cattle prods, and violence to the point of maiming, if deemed necessary. Unlike other women in Gilead, Aunts are allowed to read and write. Having pledged their allegiance to Gilead, these women seemingly justify their actions as carrying out God’s will.
Marthas are infertile women who have been assigned as cooks and cleaners to elite families. They wear muted greyish-green robes and aprons, and much like Handmaids, they have no autonomy and must obey Gilead’s rules in order to avoid death.
Despite sitting at the top of Gilead’s hierarchy of women, a Wife doesn’t maintain much autonomy. Married to Commanders, Wives are the mostly silent partners within Gilead’s power-couples. As most Wives are infertile, they’re assigned Handmaids in order to procreate and start families of their own. As the TV series explores, Fred Waterford’s wife, Serena Joy, was seemingly instrumental in the early days of Gilead, but she’s not afforded any special treatment. Wives wear blue, and can usually be found knitting.
The most memorable example of an Econowife is Eden (played by Sydney Sweeney), the young woman placed into an arranged marriage with Nick in Season 2. Rather than being married to Commanders, Econowives are fertile women who are married off to Gilead’s more ordinary men. As well as being expected to have children, Econowives are expected to take care of their households, and they aren’t assigned Marthas to help them.
We’re also introduced to families of Econopeople in the third episode of Season 2, when June forces Omar (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) to help her escape Gilead. He sneaks her into an apartment complex, where he lives an ordinary life with his wife and son.
While the population is forced to abide by strict laws, those in charge are allowed to let off some steam without facing any consequences. So it shouldn’t surprise anyone that there’s a government-sanctioned brothel called Jezebels, at which commanders and powerful dignitaries can have sex with prostitutes every night.
In Gilead, all women are stripped of any agency when it comes to their sexuality, but a Jezebel is utilized purely for one purpose. As we learn in Season 1, episode 8, June’s friend Moira (Samira Wiley) is forced to become a Jezebel after she attempts to escape while being trained as a Handmaid. Basically, Jezebels are “unwomen” who are forced into prostitution having refused to abide by society’s rules.
When a woman no longer fits into one of Gilead’s limited roles, they become classified as an “unwoman.” They’re subsequently sent to the colonies or killed. An unwoman either isn’t fertile or has disobeyed the rules of society to the point of no going back. For instance, Emily (Alexis Bledel) is sent to the colonies after a failed escape attempt, and an affair with a Martha for which she’d already been brutally punished with a clitoridectomy.
Commanders are the highest-ranking men within Gilead, and many of them were responsible for the country’s inception. They hold different roles within Gilead, such as politicians and military leaders. Commanders are the only men who are assigned Handmaids. Throughout the TV series, Commanders have been shown to be less than Godly behind-the-scenes, whether it’s through frequent brothel visits, or illegally coercing the women in their lives. They are, essentially, above the law, because they created it.
Sons of Jacob
The Sons of Jacob are the group of men who were responsible for the creation of Gilead. They orchestrated the coup by carrying out military strikes against the U.S. government. “The Committee” is what the Sons of Jacob call the inner circle of government, which sees high-ranking Commanders make crucial decisions on behalf of the new country.
Below Commanders in the Gilead pecking order, Angels are an all-male military group who defend the country against rebels and fight on the frontlines. They’re armed and dangerous to anyone that isn’t a man living within Gilead’s very specific interpretation of the Bible.
Much like Angels, Guardians of the Faith are men in Gilead who are helping to enforce society’s new laws. The Waterford’s driver, Nick Blaine, is a Guardian, and he works as a personal bodyguard to the family. He later gets promoted to the role of Commander, but Nick’s initial role is in ensuring one of the country’s most prominent men is safe.
Ordinary people fear Eyes even more than Angels and Guardians, because you can never be sure who or where they might be lurking. A form of secret police, The Eyes detect any rebellious activity that might be taking place in Gilead, and they take care of it, violently.
One of the most horrifying aspects of the dystopia portrayed in The Handmaid’s Tale is the rampant homophobia that’s enforced in Gilead. With the country reverting to Old Testament “laws” and ideas, homosexuality is illegal, and women are only considered useful if they can conceive the children of powerful heterosexual couples. Emily reveals to June that she’s “a carpet-munching gender traitor” who had a family of her own with a woman prior to Gilead. While most “gender traitors” were sent away to the colonies, Emily was enlisted as a Handmaid on account of her “two working ovaries.” When Emily is reported for having a relationship with a Martha, she is found guilty of “gender treachery,” which is when she is forcibly maimed as punishment, while her girlfriend is hung.
The ever-elusive Mayday is an underground resistance group fighting against Gilead. Impossible to pin down as a particular group of people, Mayday seemingly refers to anyone who is trying to bring down Gilead and help those imprisoned within its regime. Mayday has been known to include Marthas and Handmaids, who have worked together to get people out of the country. Guardians and Eyes have also been known to take part in these efforts.
The nickname June gave her daughter, Hannah, who was kidnapped by Gilead and reassigned to a Commander and his Wife.
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Also known as The Republic of Gilead, or the “Divine Republic,” Gilead consists of the former United States of America, reassigned as new districts. A patriarchal totalitarian theocracy, Gilead’s absolutism has forced all Americans who failed to escape into new roles within its regime. Much focus is placed upon defending Gilead’s borders, which are often being compromised by rebels.
The Red Center
A school gymnasium is the site of The Rachel and Leah Reeducation Center, also known as The Red Center. Here, Handmaids are trained for their new roles. Aunts run The Red Centers, and are able to enforce brutal discipline upon their pupils. Handmaids who have broken the law in some way are sometimes imprisoned in The Red Center, where they might be chained to a bed. This also applies to pregnant Handmaids who have tried to escape.
Loaves and Fishes
Handmaids are seen shopping in this supermarket, where they buy products for their households with “tokens,” which seem to have replaced money in Gilead. None of the products feature any writing, because women aren’t allowed to read.
Where the criminals of Gilead are hung to serve as reminders that citizens shouldn’t break the rules. Handmaids often stop and stare at the wall, or are forced to wash blood off of it as one of their duties.
Unwomen are sent to The Colonies, areas of the United States which have been contaminated with toxic waste, where they work until they die. They’re forced to “clean” the polluted areas and are seen needlessly digging through barren land, which is presumably a metaphor for their own status as women without childbearing abilities.
Breeding or Magdalene Colonies were new institutions designed to house Handmaids who had caused trouble for their masters. Instead, Handmaids would carry out agricultural labor in the colonies, and then be visited each month by their Commander and his Wife to carry out The Ceremony. The horrifying innovation is lauded by Aunt Lydia in Season 4, and June narrowly escapes becoming the resident of one.
American refugees who make it to Canada take up residence in Little America, a safe-haven complex in Toronto for those fleeing Gilead.
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“Blessed Be the Fruit.”
Handmaids greet each other with this seemingly innocuous phrase, which places emphasis on fertility. Presumably, if said enough, these handmaids will bear the fruit of their Commanders. Handmaids also regularly reply to greetings with, “Praise Be,” or “May the Lord Open,” which is a similarly gross phrase.
“Under His Eye.”
Another saying regularly heard in Gilead, “Under His Eye” is a terrible phrase that suggests both God and the State are watching at all times.
“Blessed are the silent.”
In Season 3, June traveled to Washington, DC, with the Waterfords, where she discovered that Handmaids were treated very differently. As well as being forced to cover their mouths with red masks, Handmaids’ mouths were locked shut with metal rings, meaning that they couldn’t speak. While even Aunt Lydia seemed horrified, it was clear that Gilead’s future would be even more brutal for women. While all women are taught to be meek in Gilead, June utters the phrase, “Blessed are the silent” in response to the literal silencing of women in the capital.
“Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.”
Perhaps the most famous phrase in The Handmaid’s Tale, June discovers the words carved into the wall in her attic room. After asking her Commander what it means, it transpires that the words are actually a mock Latin joke, loosely translated to “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.” This quickly becomes June’s mantra, and the phrase that spurs her on in her fight against Gilead.
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Every month when a Handmaid is deemed to be fertile, they are forced to take part in The Ceremony with their Commander and his Wife. The Handmaid is forced to have sex with the Commander, while lying between the Wife’s legs. The disgusting act essentially sees Handmaids raped against their wills each month, as part of their so-called duties to conceive.
If anyone in Gilead breaks the rules, they might be sentenced to death, and it’s likely that their death will be excruciating. Salvagings are often public hangings, which the Handmaids are sometimes forced to perform by controlling the ropes. Sometimes, they are also forced to perform “Particicutions,” which are group stonings or beatings, such as when Aunt Lydia asks the Handmaids to kill Janine in the Season 1 finale.
This article originally appeared on Harper’s BAZAAR US.