Picked up from this week’s Private Eye. I’d heard about this before, (it is even worthy of its own Wiki entry) but only now come across an actual interview with the main main – in the New Zealand Herald’s report on Chief Jack Naiva (see right). Do read the whole story, but there are some absolutely classic lines worth quoting here.
“Philip sent this to us. Now we have three of them.” A signed portrait of HRH the Duke of Edinburgh is an incongruous sight in the middle of a South Pacific jungle, but for this remote village in Vanuatu it is a revered part of their daily lives. As unlikely as it sounds, the people of Yaohnanen and surrounding villages worship 85-year-old Prince Philip as a god.
This is the sort of thing that one might have expected of the Roman Empire – not in the post-imperial, post-Christian, post-post era in which we now live. So how on earth did this happen? Well according to the New Zealand Herald, it is in fact all the Christians’ fault (we get blamed for an awful lot of things but this is a new one on me, I have to say):
… it appears that at some point in the 1950s they melded the Christian conviction of a messiah with the respect accorded Philip by the British colonial authorities of what was then the New Hebrides. Their veneration of the Duke of Edinburgh fitted comfortably with an ancient prophecy that a Tanna man would venture far away in search of a powerful woman to marry. The Prince’s cult-like status received a big boost when he came to the New Hebrides on a state visit in March 1971, resplendent in a white naval uniform as he and the Queen steamed into the capital, Port Vila. The Prince is well aware that he is the subject of such distant adoration and has allowed his framed portraits to be sent to Chief Jack Naiva and his little band of believers.
Many religious frameworks struggle to grasp the paradoxes entailed by the theological concepts of divine eternity, immanence and transcendence. I’m pleased to say that this particular religion is no exception. One might even suggest that it comes perilously close to some version of incarnational theology:
London may be 15,000km from this obscure corner of Melanesia, but villagers say the spirit of Prince Philip is close. “We can’t see him, but sometimes we hear his voice,” said Chief Jack. Chief Jack knows that Prince Philip is, like him, in the twilight of his life. But he is unfazed, believing the Duke may be immortal.” Jimmy Nipil, a tribe member in his 30s, says: “We don’t know where England is but we know he lives there and he has four children. We believe England is a very special place.”
But i think the most striking aspect is the way that these believers have persevered in their beliefs through many a season. One can only hope that their faith is neither misplaced nor disappointed.
Despite worshiping the Prince as a god for half a century, the villagers – none of whom can read or write – learned only recently that his birthday falls on June 10. Great plans are now under way to celebrate the occasion this year with dancing and a feast. Chief Jack has even managed to acquire an immaculate new Union Jack, which will be run up a flagpole and saluted. But the celebrations will only really be complete if Prince Philip himself turns up, the tribe says. “You must tell King Philip that I’m getting old and I want him to come and visit me before I die,” said the white-haired chief, who thinks he is about 80.
“If he can’t come perhaps he could send us something to help us: a Landrover, bags of rice or a little money.”