Usha Alexander in Shunya’s Notes:
Some time ago, Ruchira brought to my attention an article about a village on the island of Tanna in Vanuatu, where the people believe Prince Philip of England is a god. Though it might sound preposterous to many of us, it’s actually not a joke. As the article explains, Prince Philip is a foreigner who traveled across the sea from his native land to marry a powerful woman and, as it happens, the people of Yaohnanen village on Tanna know that a pale-skinned spirit from their own island once made just such a journey. Somewhere in the past decades, Prince Philip came to be regarded by these villagers to be that selfsame island spirit.
And why not? This religious tradition dates back some decades to the time when Vanuatu was a colony of European powers. Conflating their own mythic histories with the current news they would have heard during those colonial times was not an unreasonable thing for the islanders to do, especially given that the goings on in faraway England and the lives lead by British royals might seem every bit as mythical and magical to them as their stories of spirits might to us. What’s more, by recognizing this powerful man as being one of their own kin (albeit of a spiritual nature), they associate themselves directly with power and can appeal for benevolence.
At least on one level, this is the aim of religious mythology: to associate ordinary people with mystical power. One sees in the emergent and localized religions of Vanuatu the unvarnished essence of how religion works, how it arises, what function it serves in society and in individuals, how it binds groups in common understanding, and also how it impedes understanding between people of different beliefs.