While Queen Elizabeth lost her husband, the British their prince consort, the villagers of Yaohnanen in Vanuatu lost their god, as Prince Philip died. But what happens when a god dies? Join me as I visit the Prince Philip worshippers on the island of Tanna. Originally published in Norwegian in Vårt Land 16 April 2021.
By Dag Øistein Endsjø, professor of the Study of Religion at the University of Oslo
When the royal yacht sailed up the west coast of the island of Tanna on a February day in 1974, the Duke of Edinburgh leaned thoughtfully over the rail and looked ashore. When his wife the queen went to him and asked what was wrong, he replied as follows: “My dear, there is something I have to tell you, that I have been keeping secret from you for a long time. I'm really a man-Tanna. My area is up from that beach, in the bush, and some day I have to return.” When the queen heard this, she began to cry.
This more mythical account of the official visit of Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh in what was then the Franco-British New Hebrides is part of the sacred stories written down in the small village of Yaohnanen on Tanna in Vanuatu. According to local belief, Prince Philip is the descendant of the ancestor whose-name-may-not-be-spoken. The inhabitants of Yaohnanen themselves hold that the belief arose from that one of their elders around 1966 found a picture of the original Greek Prince in a book about the royal family and “recognized something about him.” “This must be him,” said the elder. “If he’s not French, and not English and not American, he’s got to be New Hebridean.” The sacred rendition otherwise follows roughly what is usually known about the Prince: He became a naval officer, a cowboy or polo player and then went to Britain to find a suitable wife, where he later ruled the country with her help.
The belief in Prince Philip as a divine figure is related to the so-called cargo cult that is generally strong on the islands of Vanuatu. These beliefs originate in both older traditional beliefs and the cultural shock that arose when Allied soldiers – not least black American soldiers – arrived with their seemingly endless supplies of material goods during World War II. At the heart of the Cargo faith is the conviction that divine figures associated with legendary ancestors will return to establish an ear of abundance. As the scriptures say, the moment the Prince sets foot on a special rock on Blacksands Beach west of Tanna, mature kava plants will miraculously sprout all over the island, old people become like new as they shed their skins as snakes, and “there will be no more sickness and no more death.”
While Prince Philip’s return would initiate this golden age in Yaohnanen, the inhabitants of the Sulphur Bay area further east on Tanna, are awaiting a black figure named John Frum, not dissimilar from a typical African-American soldier. As a divine avatar with supernatural abilities, Prince Philip from his dwelling in England has long helped his followers in Yaohnanen, with the crops, good weather and, not least, as the chief's son Sikor Natuan told me in 2016, the Prince made sure the village was spared any major destruction when Cyclone Pam ravaged large parts of the island state in 2015. When another cyclone hit Vanuatu in 2017, some of Prince Philip’s supporters thought this to be a sign that the Prince, who had just retired from his public office seem, had reached an even holier status.
Despite his alleged longing for his original hometown, Prince Philip never visited the Yaohnanen. He never came closer than the time when the royal yacht actually sailed up along the coast of Tanna, on its way to the New Hebridan capital further north. But he sent the villagers several large autographed photographs, a British flag and other gifts, which may be displayed for visitors at the sanctuary which is the centre of the Prince Philip cult. In 2007, a group of villagers also got to meet him, when they took journeyed to the United Kingdom in connection with a television program. The meeting itself was not filmed, but according to the men from Yaohnanen, the meeting was very successful and they got an important message back to Tanna.
What happens next with the Prince Philip cult is unclear. The islanders now mourn both sincerely and ceremonially, while marking the passing with traditional dance, sacrifices and kava rituals. But it is unclear whether the Duke of Edinburgh’s death means the end of the movement. What happens now with the miraculous golden age that should have been initiated by the return of the Prince?
Some hold that the spirit of Prince Philip is now returning to the island of Tanna, but it is uncertain whether this means that he will remain there forever. Will the Prince, who really is he whose-name-may-not-be-spoken, let himself be reincarnated in another form? Maybe he will resurrect at some point in the future, and then finally relocate to Yaohnanen? Will the cult followers search for another living figure, who can take the part Prince Philip has played for over half a century. Perhaps there is disagreement among the villagers about what really happened after the Prince’s death, that the original unified movement is dissolved into several different cults.
Of course, Prince Philip is not the only divine figure who has died and created great waves among his followers. Almost two thousand years ago, the death of Jesus became the starting point for an entire world religion, with its many variations. That something like this will happen in the wake of the Duke of Edinburgh’s demise is more doubtful. But there is certainly reason to follow what happens in the future at the centre of the world for the worship of Queen Elizabeth’s consort.
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