The Death of a Vanuatu God – Prince Philip

The big news, for some, has been the passing of Prince Philip at the age of 99. One thought I had was to wonder what the Vanuatu tribe that worshiped him as a God would make of this news when somebody tells them. Will they dismiss it as fake?

First, a bit of background for you.

The Birth of a Modern Cult

There exists on the southern island of Tanna in Vanuatu a tribe that worship Prince Philip as a God … or to be a tad more precise, “worshiped”, past tense perhaps, because we do have to wonder what happens now that somebody has told them.

More on that in a moment.

How exactly did this cult start?

You do seriously have to wonder how a guy who is not exactly renowned for being culturally sensitive ended up becoming an official divinity.

The ground was in one sense already set via the existence of an ancient tale. This was a story about a mountain spirit that travelled over the seas to a distant land. There, he married a powerful woman and in time would return to them. He was sometimes said to be a brother to John Frum.

Side Note: John Frum is a name associated with cargo cults on the island of Vanuatu.

It is not wholly clear exactly what started the association of Prince Philip with this ancient tale, but it appears to have started in the 50s and 60s. Some speculate that pictures of him up on the wall beside the queen in colonial offices might have been responsible.

What did give the belief a huge boost was a visit to Vanuatu by the Queen and Prince Philip in 1974.

At that time during the visit Prince Philip was totally unaware of any of this.

Several years later, John Champion, the British Resident Commissioner in the New Hebrides, mentioned it to him and suggested that he send them a signed photo. He agreed and did exactly that.

The villagers responded to this by sending him a traditional pig-killing club called a nal-nal, but requested that they receive proof that it had been actually sent to him. In compliance with their request, the Prince sent a photograph of himself posing with the club.

Meet The Natives

In 2007 the UK broadcaster Channel 4 decided to make a small documentary that involved flying five of the Vanuatu men to the UK to meet Prince Philip face to face. Off camera they got to meet him, exchanged gifts, and took group photos.

What Happens Now?

Somebody has told them the latest news. The BBC reports their reaction …

A formal mourning period is now under way, and tribespeople are gathering on Monday [Today as I write this] in a ceremony to remember Prince Philip.

“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 tribal leader Chief Yapa, according to Reuters news agency.

For the next few weeks, villagers will periodically meet to conduct rites for the Duke, who is seen as a “recycled descendant of a very powerful spirit or god that lives on one of their mountains”, says anthropologist Kirk Huffman who has studied the tribes since the 1970s. 

They will likely conduct ritualistic dance, hold a procession, and display memorabilia of Prince Philip, while the men will drink kava, a ceremonial drink made from the roots of the kava plant.

This will culminate with a “significant gathering” as a final act of mourning. “There will be a great deal of wealth on display” which would mean yams and kava plants, says Vanuatu-based journalist Dan McGarry

What is going on inside their heads that enabled them to believe that he was a God?

That same BBC article explains it like this …

The villagers’ centuries-old “kastom”, or culture and way of life, sees Tanna as the origin of the world and aims to promote peace – and this is where Prince Philip has played a central role.

Over time, the villagers have come to believe he is one of them – the fulfilment of a prophecy of a tribesman who has “left the island, in his original spiritual form, to find a powerful wife overseas,” says Mr Huffman.

“Ruling the UK with the help of the Queen, he was trying to bring peace and respect for tradition to England and other parts of the world. If he was successful, then he could return to Tanna – though one thing preventing him was, as they saw it, white people’s stupidity, jealousy, greed and perpetual fighting.”

With his “mission to literally plant the seed of Tanna kastom at the heart of the Commonwealth and empire”, the Duke was thus seen as the living embodiment of their culture, says Mr McGarry.

“It’s a hero’s journey, a person who sets off on a quest and literally wins the princess and the kingdom.”

What Happens Now?

There appears to be some speculation that they might switch to worshiping Prince Charles, but honestly who really knows. All we can do is watch and see what happens in the years to come.

That is all totally Crazy

Is it really any different to our own more familiar beliefs?

Many have embraced a middle-eastern Jewish Messiah claimant as a literal God. The belief is that the great spirit gave birth to itself so that it could then sacrifice itself to itself because one of our ancestors was tricked by a talking snake into eating some fruit. That is quite literally what most who believe in Jesus actually believe to be really true.

From the viewpoint of the Vanuatu people this is utterly absurd, and we are clearly too stupid to grasp the truth that they have embraced.

Belief is part of human culture. We inject into our lives rituals and beliefs that bring us comfort and meaning. We might laugh at the utter absurdity of the Vanuatu beliefs and could even be tempted to also mock them. It is perhaps however best to hit pause on that because from their viewpoint we are just as absurd and silly.

Deep down we really are not all that different.

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