All religions, cults, churches and all like organisations have to start somewhere. There have been a few modern examples of people starting up religions in the name of making a quick buck (Scientology, the big Mega-Churches, etc) but fewer based on genuine belief. Now we have such an example which very well could serve as a taste of how all older religions started – belief in a normal person that got blown completely out of proportion for one reason or another.
Time is running out for a remote tribe in Vanuatu, which is waiting for the return of a most unlikely deity.
The people of Yakel, on the southern island of Tanna, venerate Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh.
He is now England’s longest serving royal consort, and is soon to turn 88 years old. But it is not clear how the tribe will deal with his inevitable mortality.
Asia Pacific Focus visited Tanna and found a remarkable spread of religious diversity.
Lava explosions, which reach many storeys above the bubbling cauldron of the central crater, can be heard, like occasional rolling thunder, across the island’s south-east.
On Friday evenings, as the sun sets behind Yasur’s rumbling slopes, songs can be heard in the surrounding villages.
In another of the intriguing belief systems of the island, the people surrounding the volcano do not venerate Prince Philip, instead raising their voices in praise to another spirit figure, John Frum.
Frum is said to have visited here in the 1930s, as either a man or a spirit, depending on who you talk to.
He advised the people here to reject cannibalism, but to maintain every other aspect of their traditional culture – to the extent of opposing missionaries.
And he said that, one day, America would come to help the islanders.
It was a prediction which became a prophecy fulfilled when soldiers arrived in World War II, with free medical attention and infrastructure.
Now war souvenirs, and flags of all sorts, are believed to act as protection for the traditional culture.
It was another case of interaction that resulted in the Duke of Edinburgh being elevated to godlike status by the people of Yakel.
Unlike the John Frumers, who wear largely western clothing, the women of this group wear grass skirts, and the men, penis sheaths.
Deep in Tanna’s rainforest they live a subsistence lifestyle, and reject modern things like money.
And they have an ancient legend which tells of a group of warriors who left, a long time a go, to fight a war on a faraway island so as to preserve Tannese culture.
The leader of the warriors said he would return one day with a rich and powerful wife.
In 1974 the British Royal family paid a visit to the then New Hebridies.
While in the capital, Port Vila, Prince Philip is said to have handed a man from Tanna a symbolic white pig, and in doing so, stumbled into the ancient prophecy.
Local man Thom Sia, who acts as English translator for the village elders, said his people were waiting patiently for Prince Philip’s return.
The elders of the tribe have a collection of sometimes old and torn photographs of the Duke of Edinburgh.
They want him to live in their village.
“We love for Prince Philip to go to England and stay for long time, and we love for him to come back and see us in Tanna,” the translator said.
When questioned about what will happen if the Prince dies, Mr Sia, after consulting an older man in group calmly replied the tribe believed the royal consort would be returning to Tanna to die.
“We don’t think Prince Philip will die in England, we are loving him to coming back to die.”
Prince Philip’s family may have different ideas for what to do in such a situation.
But whatever happens, anthropologists say the Duke of Edinburgh will enjoy a type of immortality – forever venerated here by a culture which has already lasted thousands of years.
Australian Museum anthropologist Kirk Huffman, who has studied the people of Vanuatu for about 30 years, says the beliefs of the region have often been incorrectly branded as cargo cults.
Cargo cults are belief systems focused around material goods, which sometimes occur when traditional societies come into contact with industrialised cultures.
The cults centre on obtaining technological development and material wealth through spiritual means.
“I think it is rather unfortunate that the white people analysing aspects of some of these movements have tended to call them cargo cults,” Dr Huffman said in an interview for Asia Pacific Focus.
“The white people have tended to concentrate on the materialistic side of some of these belief system without realising that there are much more profound questions being asked.
“These types of movements are actually visionary movements and they are ways that societies in many places in the western Pacific have tried to come to terms with new realities in a way that will help them to explain these new realities.”
We have clear evidence how one religion began and continues to this day. Can that same process be applied to Christianity, Judaism, Islam or any other major religion you care to name?