The UK and the world mourn the loss of Prince Philip, who passed away last week at the age of 99. But perhaps few are mourning as much as the people of Yaohnanen and Yakel, two villages in the island nation of Vanuatu, who revere the Duke of Edinburgh as a god.
The tribespeople are followers of the Prince Philip Movement, who believe the prince is a divine being.
On Monday, tribespeople gathered to remember their departed deity, and to send condolences to Queen Elizabeth. "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," the tribal leader Chief Yapa said.
But how did a group of indigenous people in the South Pacific come to believe in the divinity of a man a world away?
The Prince Philip Movement
It all stems from an indigenous legend about the son of a mountain spirit who left the island and traveled over the seas to a distant land, where he married a powerful woman. In time, it was said, he would return.
The people of Yaohnanen believe that Prince Philip is that son, meant to bring peace to the world and spread “kastom”, the villagers’ way of life. His goals complete, he’d eventually return home to Tanna, the small island where the villagers live.
No one’s actually quite sure how they came to that conclusion, but a popular theory posits that villagers saw Prince Philip’s photo alongside the Queen’s in British colonial buildings in the 1950s or 60s. Their belief would have then been cemented when the royal couple made an official visit to Vanuatu (then called New Hebrides) in 1974, and tribespeople viewed Prince Philip from afar.
Upon learning of his faithful followers, Prince Philip sent a signed photograph of himself to the island. The Yaohnanen people responded by sending the prince a traditional pig-killing club - Prince Philip took a photo of him holding the club, and sent the photo to the villagers. The photos are still treasured by the villagers, who may be among the only people on the planet who can say they have their god’s framed autograph.
The Prince Philip Movement is often considered a ‘cargo cult’, one of several that popped up in Melanesia following the Second World War. Indigenous Melanesians had a front-row seat to the Pacific Theater, and received modern gifts from both Japanese and US troops that dramatically changed their way of life. Following those encounters, some native Melanesians came to believe that a special “cargo” of goods would be delivered by foreigners. Often, that belief became intertwined with local myths and legends, as in the case of the Prince Philip Movement.
They can herald anything from a cataclysmic destruction of the old order, to the potential reversal of fortunes of indigenous peoples and white foreigners.
As for the Prince Philip Movement, one anthropologist who studies them says they’ll worship Prince Charles now, but will mourn Prince Philip for the next few weeks with their own funeral procession and a ritualistic dance, among many other things. This is, after all, a huge event - it’s not every day that you get news that your god has actually died.
It’s certainly interesting to think that new faiths are being created, even today. What do you think of the Prince Philip Movement?