“Great white spark” (Cargo cults)


Many publications have claimed to have news available nowhere else, but the Weekly World News delivered. No other periodical gave us fantabulous headlines like, “Man in Amazon kidnapped by tribe of Al Jolson lookalikes.” Or employed a cranky columnist who complained, “Today’s Christmas toys aren’t dangerous enough!”

But when the paper profiled a tribe of Pacific Islanders that worshipped Don King, it fell short of what reality was offering in terms of being unbelievable. There are genuine cargo cults more bizarre than a fictitious one centered on an unscrupulous boxing promoter.

One such cult is on Vanuatu, an archipelago 3,500 miles southwest of Hawaii. The nation is so remote and obscure that few persons other than geography geeks (such as your author) had heard of it until the TV series Survivor spent a season there.

One might assume that Prince Philip’s announcement this week that he was retiring from public life would be of no concern to those on Vanuatu. But at least for residents of the village of Ionhanen on Tanna island, it is causing significant angst. It means their god won’t be coming home.

These villagers believe the Duke of Edinburgh was born to a mountain spirit on Tanna before floating to a strange, distant land, evidently taking advantage of a disembodied entity’s travel capabilities. Once there, he married an immensely powerful woman. Villagers await this son’s return, not unlike another religion I can think of.

The idea of a floating spirit marrying into wealth, power, and privilege dates to around 1960, but it became associated with Prince Philip when he and Queen Elizabeth II traveled to Vanuatu in 1974, and Ionhanen villagers noticed the extreme deference with which he was treated by politicians.

A local leader with the most excellent moniker Chief Jack paddled a canoe that greeted the royal yacht and he later observed, “I saw him standing on the deck in his white uniform and knew then that he was the true messiah.”

More recently, some villagers were convinced that Cyclone Pam slamming into Vanuatu in 2015 presaged a future visit from Prince Philip, though the announcement from Buckingham Palace this week seems to preclude that. Many persons who would scoff at the notion of linking a cyclone to a potential Royal visit will assert that natural disasters which befall the United States are the result a raging god offering his commentary on gay marriage. Indeed, post hoc reasoning is among the centerpieces of most religions.

Prince Philip worshippers are part of a handful of remaining cargo cults, most of them in the South Pacific. While they date to as far back as the 18th Century, the majority sprang up in World War II, when soldiers and sailors exposed islanders to technology and products far more advanced than anything they ever knew existed. This included matches, mirrors, radios, canned food, soft drinks, and Walkie Talkies, to say nothing of airplanes and automatic weapons. In many cases, the arrival of pale-skinned guests and their accompanying manna seemed consistent with longstanding myths about past wonders and prophecies of a divine return.

For instance, the sails and masts of Capt. James Cook’s ship resembled images of the Hawaiian god Lono. Plus, he arrived of the day of this deity’s annual festival, so Cook was literally treated like a god. On his return trip, however, the masts and sails had been damaged by storms, which greatly enraged the islanders. Cook tried to explain what had happened, but what kind of lame deity is unable to control the weather? Disenchanted believers pummeled Cook with clubs, knives, and rocks.

Conversely, it was the man-god doing the damage when Cortes met the Aztecs. He arrived on the date the Mesoamericans were expecting Quetzalcoatl to return from the Abyss and reclaim his land. Hence, a terrified Montezuma obsequiously gave into every one of the Spaniard’s demands and whims. It did no good, as Cortes eventually slaughtered his worshippers, continuing a ghoulish godly tradition that includes slaying first-born sons and drowning nearly every living being.

When Cook, Cortes, or U.S. service members arrived, islanders were seeing men who were very different from themselves in appearance, dress, and conduct. These unexpected, inexplicable travelers also seemed capable of multitudinous miracles and their arrival seemed to have been forecasted. With all this, the notion that it was supernatural seems understandable. Then, post hoc reasoning caused the belief to strengthen. In the 75 years since American fighters arrived on the islands, some South Pacific nations have seen the construction of airports, universities, and hospitals, none of which their ancestors knew existed 100 years ago. Thus, the prophecy that strange beings were going to arrive and usher in unprecedented prosperity seems fulfilled.

This might seem to be a quaint quality of a simple people who sleep in huts, travel by canoe, and harvest food by hand. Yet it is almost identical to when U.S. Christians consider modern developments to be confirmation of their scriptures. For example, some posters to Matt Walsh’s Facebook page wrote that Earth Day fulfills Romans 1:25 (“They worshipped and served created things rather than the creator.”) Others maintain gay marriage advocates were portended by Isaiah 5:2, which reads, “Woe unto them that call evil good.” Still others cite any strange, though explicable, astronomical features as a vindication of Luke 21:25 (“There will be signs in the sun, moon, and stars.”) Pacific Islanders living in primitive conditions and multimillionaire televangelists reveling in tax-free luxury are both manifesting the Forer Effect, where something is deemed valid because it has personal meaning.

When victorious service members left the South Pacific, rudimentary landing strips and ports were built in hopes of enticing the gods to come back. Some Islanders built replica airplanes out of bamboo and leaves, thinking this might attract the real thing. Even 72 years later, some still expect their gods to return. With that duration, it may seem that these folks have had a long wait, but by religion standards, they’re rookies.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s