Why do these Pacific islanders worship Prince Philip as a god?

Prince Philip sits in a train on a journey marking the 175th anniversary of the first train journey by a British monarch.Reuters

Prince Charles is to visit the Pacific archipelago of Vanuatu next month, where his father Prince Philip is revered as a god. He has been touring Australia, where –

Sorry, can I stop you there? Prince Philip is a god?

It depends what you mean by 'is', but he is regarded as such by some in Vanuatu, yes.

The Prince Philip who makes jokes about other races?

Political correctness is not necessarily an attribute of deity.

I've always rather admired him, but I've never thought of him in that way, to be honest.

Very few people have, but the island of Tanna is a special case. There is a 'Prince Philip Movement' there which is quite well supported.

It seems a little unlikely.

It is. But there is a local tradition of 'cargo cults' which grew up when ships or aircraft would appear at remote islands with fabulous riches and then disappear. They received a huge boost during the war, when American and Japanese forces dropped or abandoned vast quantities of stores. Cult leaders would build replica runways and control towers as a way of magically attracting them back.

We haven't got to Prince Philip yet...?

One of the cargo cults was on Tanna and was associated with a mysterious American figure, variously described, known as John Frum. Frum, its adherents believed, had brought them cargo and would do so again at some time in the future. Prince Philip is believed to be his brother.

On what sort of evidence might that be?

Look, it's all a bit confusing. They had a legend that the son of a mountain spirit had married a queen in a distant land and would one day return to them. This got a bit mixed up with the John Frum thing. Then they became aware of Prince Philip and the Queen in the '50s when they were a British colony and thought it might be him.

What does he think of it?

He's Church of England (though he is said to have described the doctrine of the Resurrection as 'a load of bloody nonsense') so he is unlikely to be too swayed by their convictions. However, he has sent them a couple of pictures of himself and they have sent him a traditional pig-killing stick.

I'm really not sure what to make of all this.

You aren't the only one. But it should also be said that Melanesian religion and culture is very rich and complex, and that cargo cults of various kinds came out of periods of stress and dislocation – a lot of it caused by Western colonial pressure. Of course Brits will laugh at it, because we know Prince Philip. Understanding it is a different thing entirely.

Follow Mark Woods on Twitter: @RevMarkWoods

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