The Klingon cultural hierarchy is confusing. Recently, I had to explain what I knew about Klingon culture to some newer Trekkies. It made me realized that there are thousands of new Trekkies that will have the same main question. How does the Klingon culture work? The answer lies in understanding fealty and feudalism.
The standard we set for the ideal, individual Klingon is Worf. What we saw through Worf was a rich culture and heritage. The audience understands that Klingons value honor, duty, obedience, loyalty, strength, and battle prowess. Also through Worf, we experienced the complexity of alliances. This system looks completely alien to humans. This isn’t true. Klingons are not as alien as we think they are. Worf is only a sample of the Klingon Empire.
But there is a whole Empire beyond the view of the audience. Just because we don’t see it, doesn’t mean it isn’t there. The Klingon Empire doesn’t consist solely of Klingons, just as the Federation doesn’t consist solely of Humans. But, for the moment, we are going to concentrate on the members of the Klingon Empire.
Fealty and Feudalism Not So Alien
To understand Klingons, we must look into the human past. The Klingons’ hierarchical structure is very similar to a combination: Medieval Knight, Roman Empire, and Japanese Samurai. Basic structure of hierarchy, starting low to high, is non-Klingons, Individuals, Families, Minor Houses, Major (Noble) Houses, High Council, Chancellor, and Emperor.
The class structure is very similar to the feudal tiered society, with five levels. For Klingons, the social status depends on citizenship and profession. Nobility and Warriors at the top, being the highest class. Followed by the professions of production, farmers, scientists, engineers, and lower class Klingon citizens or Non-Klingons with citizenship status. Klingon artists and Klingon merchants can also be non-Klingons with citizenship. Finally, non-Klingons without citizenship is the lowest end of the class structure.
This system is called “Feudalism”. Feudalism has been around the real, human world for a very long time. Historically speaking, there are thousands of human examples all over Earth. Consequently, there are thousands of books, television, and movies that also use this system. It is no surprise to find this mirrored in Pop Culture and Myth for “Non-Human” behavior.
Abstract to Concrete
The key factor of feudalism is fealty. Fealty is not a law or a written contract. Fealty is a verbal contract and abstract. The idea of “Your word is your bond“ is a very real human idea. For Klingons, the reality of this abstract idea is zealously followed as a religion. Without the religious accountability, anyone could say or do anything they wanted without regard for consequences. So, this is where social pressure comes into play.
Social pressure converts fealty from abstract to concrete. People in feudalistic systems, share values and beliefs concerning family and rank. If any person acts inverse to the expected behaviors, then that person will lose the relationships. For Klingons, relations are a privilege. Being blood-related to a family does not grant a “permanent easement“. Hence, the Klingons ideology of “Earn your place” keeps them from misbehaving. That idea never stops for Klingons. It follows them throughout their lives and into death. Ultimately, to get into Sto-vo-kor means consistent shows of honoring your word, earning and holding your place, and respecting the established code of conduct to the death.
Again, not so alien from human behavior. The feudalistic code of conduct is repeated by many human cultures throughout history. For example, feudalistic Japan and the Samurai are well known for these behaviors. the statement, “Death before Dishonor” may have originated there. So, it is not a surprise to hear the statement as a common battle cry for Klingons.
To summarize, Klingons are not as alien as implied. They may look different, eat differently, and be more aggressive than a human, but they are not much different from us at all. Klingons value honor and loyalty. They have a strong sense of family and patriotism. The social structure is not different. Consequently, the Klingons mirror the human condition. That is what good Pop Culture and Myth does.