- As far as strange cults go, this one is kind of heartwarming.
In case you haven’t been reading the news, Prince Philip – the husband of the UK’s Queen Elizabeth II – passed away last week. His death was reportedly unexpected, but at the age of just a couple months short of 100, perhaps he’d earned his rest.
But as upsetting the news of the Duke of Edinburgh’s passing must’ve been to the royal family and their fans, there’s one group who were probably even more distraught. After all, their god has just left this mortal coil.
The UK flag flies at half mast in the villages of Yaohnanen and Yakel, on the island of Tanna in Vanuatu. In this remote corner of the world, Prince Philip had been worshiped as a living deity for decades.
But now, the tribespeople’s god is no more. At a communal gathering arranged to mourn Prince Philip’s death, the tribal leader sent his official condolences to the British royal family.
“The connection between the people on the Island of Tanna and the English people is very strong. We are sending condolence messages to the royal family and the people of England,” said Chief Yapa from the village of Ikunala.
On April 12, the tribe held another special memorial service for Prince Philip. Men of the tribe held speeches and paid tribute the late Prince.
Ceremonies will continue for the next few weeks, ultimately culminating in a great memorial feast. The celebrations will involve slaughtering several pigs and displaying great quantities of kava roots and yams.
As the Prophecy Foretold
But how on Earth did a tribe halfway across the world come to venerate the royal consort of Great Britain as a deity? That is a story of incredible coincidences.
According to ancient Tanna legends, a pale-skinned son of a mighty mountain god once lived on the island. Desiring companionship, the son left Tanna and traveled across the oceans.
Eventually, in a distant land, he found a perfect woman and got married to her. His bride was a powerful and wealthy woman. Almost like a queen or something.
Although the mountain god’s son had left Tanna for foreign lands, the tribespeople eagerly waited for his return. You see, there was a prophecy that at some point he would come back to his home island.
Vanuatu became a British colony in 1906. Decades later, the tribespeople saw the respect the colonial officers gave to Queen Elizabeth II.
This was clearly a powerful and wealthy woman from a far distant country – exactly like the one from their legends. To them, it only made sense that her husband would be their deity, the son of the mountain god.
Their belief was only strengthened when royal couple visited Vanuatu in 1974. A few members of the tribe managed to see Prince Philip from a distance.
There he was, their lost god in the flesh. He had returned to his home island, just as the sages of the past had prophesied.
Meeting a Living God
During his visit, Prince Philip was not aware of the respect and veneration he was receiving. It wasn’t until years later until the British Resident Commissioner in the New Hebrides, John Champion, mentioned the cult to him.
At Champion’s suggestion, Philip sent an official signed photograph to the tribespeople, presumably along with his best regards. Delighted, they responded with a gift of their own – they sent Philip a nal-nal, a traditional long club used to slaughter pigs.
They also humbly asked their deity for another photo of him wielding the club. Philip complied. In 2000, he sent the tribe yet another photograph.
Then in 2005, something unexpected happened. Five of the tribe’s men were invited to visit the UK for the reality show Meet the Natives.
As the highlight of their trip, the men got to meet Prince Philip himself off-camera. Philip and the tribesmen exchanged gifts during the meeting.
The tribe also respects the rest of the royal family. Anne, Princess Royal, and Charles, Prince of Wales, have both visited Tanna, in 2014 and 2018 respectively.
When the tribe learned from a travel agent about Prince Harry’s and Meghan Markle’s marriage, they arranged a great wedding celebration. They flew the Union Jack, danced, and drank and ate well.
Praise Be to the Cargo Drop
The Prince Philip Movement, as the tribe’s religion is sometimes called, seems outlandish from our perspective. That said, it starts making a bit more sense in a wider historical context.
The veneration of Prince Philip is part a wider phenomenon known as “cargo cults.” These religions are found in various places around the world, but they’re particularly prevalent in the South Pacific.
Their roots lie particularly in Allied forces using these remote islands as naval bases during World War 2. The locals, often still leading a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, witnessed strange men arriving from the, carrying powerful weapons and food and goods like they’d never seen before.
The islander natives were particularly impressed with airplane supply drops. Imagine a person who had never seen technology more advanced than a bow watching a plane fly over an island and dropping crates of food and supplies.
As the troops traded with the locals, they eventually came to see these strange people as emissaries of the gods. When the war was over and the naval bases were abandoned, some locals continued imitating the daily routines of the troops.
Some cults have constructed life-sized replicas of cargo planes. They hold faux military parades and raise American and British flags in the hopes that the planes would come back and bring an abundance of goods again to their island.
There is even a local legendary figure that is based on the average American soldier, called John Frum. Adherents of the cargo cults believe that Frum will bring them wealth and prosperity if they follow him.
Some members of the Prince Philip Movement believe Philip was Frum’s brother. We’ll just have to wait and see whether the Duke of Edinburgh will become an even more legendary figure now that he has passed to the worlds beyond.