I get my dose of utterly useless celebrity gossip from the tatty tabloids piled in the window of a Vietnamese hair cutting salon. On Saturday, while waiting for the hairdresser to be done with the weepy kid who kept kicking off her cape, and spilled little snips of hair all over the floor, I picked up an old issue of People Magazine. And in the depths of this immense tome of knowledge and wisdom, I read that the son of Prince William and Kate Middleton – you know, the baby whose life was written out and set in stone when he was no more than a miniscule blur on an ultrasound – is named after three members of the royal family. George is for King George V and King George VI. Alexander is after Alexandra, Queen Elizabeth’s middle name. And Louis is for Prince Philip, whose grandfather was Prince Louis Alexander.
Inordinately excited at this pointless discovery, I came home and regaled Boyfriend with my scintillating findings. He, of course, was unmoved, and responded with that curtain of smugness he expertly pulls over his face at moments like these.
“Hmm. Yeah, I knew that already.”
“Why didn’t they just name him George Alexander Philip, though, if they wanted to honor Prince Philip?” I continued, unaffected by his lack of interest. “Actually, don’t answer that. I know nothing about his grandfather Louis, but no matter what he did or didn’t accomplish, I’m sure he was more relevant that Philip.”
“I don’t know,” Boyfriend said, now interested in the discussion. “I’m not sure Philip’s grandfather was more relevant than him. For instance, was grampa Louis ever worshiped as a God?”
“Ah. Did you know that on the Tanna island of Vanuatu, there is a tribe that believes Prince Philip is their God, as promised to them by their religious lore? They believe he will return to the island and to them one day, and they will all be young together.”
The country of Vanuatu is an archipelago in the south Pacific, not very far from Australia and New Zealand. The various islands are inhabited by several tribes who have, over the years, turned into star specimens for the Western discipline of ethnography. But my political aversion to this particular mode of studying people apart, one of the things that has drawn scholars from the west to Vanuatu is that the Yaohnanen people, on the island of Tanna, believe their God has descended to the Earth to be with them. In the form of a certain Prince Philip.
This system of belief is common enough among tribes in the pacific islands: God is a pale man who went out into the world from the islands, and will one day return in garb that may best be described as a suit, to give the islanders the gift of eternal youth. Referred to as “cargo cult,” this mode of worship arises from native legends informed by centuries of colonization, exploitation, and plundering by white westerners, as well as the enduring propaganda of Christian missionaries who harped incessantly and unreasonably upon the idea of an anthropomorphic God who will return to his people. Other tribes on Tanna worship a mythical American WWII soldier by the name of John Frum, who may or may not have existed. That the Yaohnanen have a similar belief system, therefore, is not at all surprising when considered within context.
Where the Yaohnanen differ from other Tannese is in the fact that they have one more teeny requirement that all applicants to the position of God must fulfill: the pale man in question must be a sorcerer who has seduced and married a beautiful queen of a faraway land.
Voila. Prince Philip.
In 1974, when Vanuatu was the New Hebrides (because, you know, a word like Vanuatu would tumble right off the stiff, colonial tongues of the British), Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip visited the island on an official tour. Some of the Yaohnanen caught a glimpse of Philip, and immediately realized that God may have descended on earth.
It took some very basic inferences, really. Pale skin? Check. In a suit? Check. Husband of the queen of a faraway land? Check. Sorcerer? Umm. Yeah, sure.
At the time, Philip was unaware of cargo cults (like he continues to be unaware of many, many things). Known for his legendary cultural sensitivity and political correctness, I assume his trip to New Hebrides involved walking around the island staring at the natives, wondering why they weren’t just throwing spears at one another, or how they were able to tell each other apart, seeing as they all looked the same. At the exact moment that an assistant brought his newly established status of divinity to his notice, I believe Philip was sagely regarding a dark-skinned woman, wondering if she was truly a female. (No, I don’t have a source for this statement. But you believe it, don’t you?)
Philip was all too pleased with the title of God, and understandably so – it was marginally less irrelevant than the title of Prince had turned out to be. His Royal Highness God Philip deigned to pose for photographs for the islanders, and even sent them an autographed portrait after he returned to England. (Swoon.) The Yaohnanen sent him a pig-spearing weapon called the nal-nal as a present, and Philip posed with that too, dispatching a picture to them immediately.
Apparently he also told the Yaohnanen that America would have a black President who would help find Osama bin Laden. And to add to their collection of divine mementos, he sent them a picture of Harry in a (gulp.) Nazi costume. Seriously, he was so totally down with his new position, that left up to him, he may have set aside a bit from the royal purse towards the building of shrines, statues, and monuments on Tanna. But as we are all aware, things like these are never left up to him.
When he left the island in 1974, God Philip promised the Yaohnanen that he would return on his 89th birthday. That was three years ago, and he didn’t keep his promise. But the Yaohnanen are cool with that. I mean, when your choices are a fabled son-of-God who allegedly walks on water and has been promising to show up for a couple of millenia, and a God they have seen, have photographs of, and who has missed his appointment by a mere three years, it’s natural to go with the latter. As the Yaohnanen village chief said to a British writer who spent time in Tanna, “(We’ve) been waiting 2,000 years for a sign from Jesus. But our Philip sends us photographs! And one day he will come.”
I’m sure he will. But in the meanwhile this British student decided to meet the Yaohnanen, standing in for God Philip. The kid was eighteen at the time. I don’t know about the islanders, but I would feel totally ripped off if my God turned young without making me young too, as per the original agreement.