“Where are the words, duty, honor, loyalty, without which a warrior is nothing?”
Worf, TNG “Heart of Glory”
I’m afraid this post got way too long, so I am splitting the Klingon religion post into 3 parts. It was at 15 pages, and I wasn’t done yet. That’s just too damn long. So, you get to read some it early, since the first section was ready to go! As I said in the inaugurating post, this series is going to be full of spoilers for Star Trek. This is your only SPOILER WARNING for this article. Most of the posts I will be doing will be examining a single episode, or maybe two, but every once in a while I’m going to focus on a larger concept that goes across all the series(es). So in this three-part series (really one long post), I’ll be examining the religion and ideology of the Klingons.
The warrior society of the Klingons could be compared to the Vikings in our own history. I’ve seen them jokingly, and somewhat accurately, referred to as “Space Vikings”, with all the positive and negative traits that a term like that implies. The focus on honor and dishonor, their proclivity for telling stories of their battles and accomplishments, their love of wine, women and song, and glorification of death in battle make them recognizable as analogous to such. On the negative side, we see some crews of Klingons being basically Space Pirates and raiders (like in the Enterprise episode “Marauders”). In fact, the Klingons could have easily become a crude parody. Thankfully, that didn’t happen, and for the most part they were treated with great respect by both the writers of the show and the Federation characters.
In The Original Series, Klingons were the antagonists to our valiant Federation heroes, and we did not get a lot of insight into their culture. They were portrayed as cunning adversaries, but extremely ruthless in achieving their goals. In the movies, the Klingons were used not just as antagonists, but as a metaphor for the Russians near the end of the Soviet Union. With the destruction of the Klingon moon Praxis (Chernobyl), the main energy source for the Empire, they enter into peace talks with the Federation, because they can no longer afford to fund a war. The Undiscovered Country makes Kirk’s prejudice towards Klingons a key point of the plot, and clearly portrays his inability to adapt to a new age and the possibility of peace as a serious character flaw. As he later says of Chancellor Gorkon “It never occurred to me to trust him.” There were those in the Federation who could not conceive of themselves without the Klingon Empire as an archenemy, and they, not Klingons, are the antagonists in this movie. That is also certainly how some Americans were feeling about the Russians at the time the movie came out.
In the later series(es), starting with The Next Generation (hereafter I’ll reference the series as TNG), we began to explore Klingon culture more deeply, through the character of Worf. Worf was raised by humans, after his family was massacred by the Romlulans, along with 4,000 other Klingons on their outpost at Khitometer (the same Khitometer where the peace treaty with the Federation was signed, ironically). After the massacre, a Starfleet ship came looking for survivors, and found only a seven-year-old Worf. When the Klingons told them that Worf had no living relatives, the Starfleet officer that found him adopted him and raised him alongside his own son (although it was later discovered that Worf had a secret, younger brother on the Klingon homeworld, Kurn). It is through the character of Worf that Star Trek first begins to explore Klingon culture. Hence, most of the series I am going to reference in this article are TNG, Deep Space Nine (DS9), and Voyager (VOY).
Klingon culture is governed by rituals, in which every action has a very specific and very significant meaning. In the DS9 episode “Apocalypse Rising”, Worf, Sisko, Odo, and O’Brien must infiltrate a Klingon outpost. The three non-Klingon characters are temporarily surgically altered to look like Klingons. Worf gives Sisko, Odo, and O’Brien lessons in how to behave like a Klingon, and during these lessons Captain Sisko mistakenly challenges him to a battle to the death by striking him with the back of his hand instead of his fist! Even a small mistake can be deadly if one is not fully versed in the ritualistic symbolism of Klingon culture.
The most important figure in all of Klingon culture is the legendary warrior-hero Kahless the Unforgettable, who lived about 1500 years before the show takes place. A deleted line from the TNG episode “Rightful Heir” states that Kahless’ death was 1,547 prior to that episode, making it 822 A.D. on Earth, if you’re interested in that kind of thing1. His prowess in battle and wisdom was so great that he has been elevated to a God-like position in Klingon religion, although he is never officially given that title (We’ll discuss Kahless more in part 2 of the Klingon series). In fact Worf states that Klingons believe that their ancestors had killed the Gods who made them! This was the exchange that prompted it:
Kira: I suppose your Gods are less vague than ours.
Worf: Our Gods are dead. Klingon warriors slew them long ago. They were more trouble than they were worth.
Kira (to herself): I’ll never understand Klingons.
Dax: Don’t worry about it, Major. Nobody does. I think they like it that way2.
Despite believing that their Gods are dead, Kahless is believed to have supernatural powers, and he has promised to return one day from Sto-Vo-Kor (the afterlife for the Honored Dead) when the Klingons need him most. In addition, relics from his time, such as a knife with his blood on it, are interred in sanctuaries with clerics to tend to them and referred to as “sacred3”. Really, Kahless is their God, even if he is never called such.
Klingon religion also has shamanic elements, such as fasting in caves around fires in an effort to evoke a vision of Kahless. In “The Sword of Kahless” Worf recounts to Dax something that happened when he was a child. “I was raised by humans, but I was too Klingon to be one of them. I did not belong. I begged my foster-parents to allow me to visit the Klingon homeworld. They arranged for me to stay with my cousin’s family. When I first set eyes on the great domes of Qo’noS, I felt that I had finally come home. But my own cousins wanted nothing to do with me.”
Dax: “You were too human to be one of them.”
Worf: “I ran away into the mountains. I was without food and water for several days. But there, in the caves of Nomat, Kahless appeared to me and told me I would do something no other Klingon has done. After I returned to Earth, I pondered the meaning of his words, and wondered what lay ahead for me. When was old enough, I joined Starfleet.” Worf is the first, and so far only, Klingon in Starfleet. This shows, among other things, the importance of visions to Klingons.
In “Birthright”, part 1, the android Data is shocked by an energy discharge during an experiment in engineering. It triggers a hidden program that his designer/father had placed in his positronic brain, which was only to be activated when Data had reached a certain point in his evolution as an individual. While he was unconscious, he experienced images and, as he puts it, “has a memory record for that time period”, which should not have been possible. During this experience, he saw his father, Dr Soong, along with other confusing, dream-like images that it seems unlikely a purely logical mind would produce. In Ten-Forward (the bar/restaurant/social gathering place on the Enterprise), Data approached Worf to discuss this experience. Data clearly chose Worf because none of his human friends have a context for visions and shamanic experiences anymore in Roddenberry’s world, but it is a well-known and integral part of Klingon religion. As such Worf is the only person on the Enterprise who could possibly advise Data about his experience. Their discussion also gives us more information about what happened in the caves of Nomat, as Worf was telling Dax about his vision in “The Sword of Kahless”. The caves of Nomat were not empty and he was not there alone. When Worf ran away from his cousins, he went to a Klingon monastery, seeking a vision.
The seventh season of TNG shows us another type of Klingon religious activity in the episode “Firstborn”. In this episode, Worf is concerned because his son Alexander has no interest in going through with the First Rite of Ascension, with is required for Klingon boys his age. It’s the first step to becoming a warrior. At this point Alexander has no interest in that life, and Worf is worried that when he gets older he would change his mind, but by then it would be too late. The Rite had to be completed then if Alexander wanted to become a warrior later on. But Alexander is one-fourth human (his mother K’Ehleyr was half-human) and has spent his whole life around humans. Worf resolves to try to get him interested and engage him in his heritage.
At Captain Picard’s suggestion, Worf takes Alexander to a nearby Klingon outpost that is celebrating the Festival of Kot’baval. This is different than seeking a personal vision in a cave; this a celebration in community, surrounded by other Klingons. There was not ascetic fasting or testing of oneself, but instead the atmosphere is festive, one of merriment and enjoyment. There are clearly carnival-like treats for sale, too, as Worf is shown sharing some wormy snack wrapped in cloth with Alexander, who is enthralled with the dramatic, dance-like portrayal of a bat’leth fight. The festival celebrated Kahless the Unforgettable’s defeat of the tyrant Molor in single combat. During the festival an older Klingon warrior played Molor, mock-battling other patrons of the festival. The words were not spoken, but sung, in Klingonese. Worf takes the challenge, and fight-dances with Molor, but is of course defeated. Even Alexander takes part, and the generous Klingon playing Molor pretends to be wounded by Alexander. (Is it appropriate to say anything involving Klingons is cute? cuz Alexander’s joy is adorable). Of course, only the actor portraying Kahless can defeat Molor, and there is much cheering from the crowd when he appears.
Many Pagan and Polytheist cultures on our own planet have used ritual drama as part of their festivals, so this kind of display is very recognizable for Pagan Star Trek fans. These rituals can be used to teach history and to celebrate a past event, as they appear to be here, or they can build energy up to a point until a kind of group catharsis is achieved. The singing, instead of speaking, during the mock-battle is also reminiscent of the ancient Greek chorus used in plays, which were first presented at the Greater Dionysisa festivals in Athens. This type of ritualistic drama in Star Trek will be addressed again in a future post, focusing on the TNG episodes “Darmok” and “Masks”.
Klingons also practice Ordeal Rituals, driving themselves to the edge of their physical abilities and back. On the ten year anniversary of their Rite of Ascension4, a Klingon goes through a gauntlet of at least four pairs of warriors with cattle-prod-like painstiks. Before getting married, a Klingon groom and his closest friends also go through a period of fasting and intense physical endurance tests5. What’s interesting about these tests is that when Worf asks his human friends to participate, which Martok described as “four long nights filled with song and fellowship”, and the humans ask if he’s talking about a Klingon bachelor party, he says that “it is a … similar ritual”. Which means that Klingons see these physical endurance tests as being as much fun, as enjoyable as beer and strippers. And also means his poor human friends have no idea what they are getting into! There are also similar endurance tests every year on the Day of Honor6, as well as examining your behavior over the past year to see if you measure up to Klingon standards. Klingons are big on endurance rituals in general.
Voyager shows us another side of Klingon society, in the character of B’lanna Torres, a half-human, half-Klingon woman who is very uncomfortable with her Klingon side. In her own words, “I inherited the forehead and the bad attitude. That’s it7.” B’lanna had attended Starfleet Academy, but found the strict rules and regimented lifestyle hard to adapt to. Her temper got her into trouble more than once, and she eventually dropped out, believing she would never belong in Starfleet. She ended up joining the Marquis, where many malcontents and misfits ended up in the Star Trek universe. When the Caretaker pulled the Marquis ship she was on (and eventually Voyager as well) into the Delta Quadrant, she found herself in a situation she likely couldn’t have imagined. The Marquis ship was destroyed in the pilot episode of the series, so that Starfleet and Marquis crews are forced to work together. Throughout the series, her Klingon nature is much commented on and blamed for her temper, but not really explored, except for a few outstanding episodes.
This seemed like a reasonable place to end the first post, as it’s a basic overview of Klingon religion and ritual and a new section starts right after this. So, the next post will start the discussion of specific Star Trek episodes that are significant and delve further into Klingon mysticism. This might confuse some Star Trek fans, but “Faces”, despite being a fantastic episode about both of B’lanna Torres’ sides, will not be discussed in this series, because I am focusing on Klingon religion.
2DS9 episode. “Homefront.”
3TNG episode. “Rightful Heir”
4TNG. “The Icarus Factor”
5DS9. “You Are Cordially Invited.”
6VOY. “Day of Honor.”
7VOY. “Barge of the Dead”.