The cargo cults of Tanna

The island of Tanna is home to several of these mysterious cults – which nowadays welcome visitors and discuss their rituals.

Best known is the John Frum cult, which worships the USA. It has its roots in World War II when, according to one explanation of the name, a departing black American soldier (one of a contingent based on Tanna) announced he was “John from America” and would return. However, “John from” was misunderstood to be “John Frum”. In a village of thatched huts, the US flag is still raised each day and uniformed followers march with imitation rifles carved from wood in a parade-ground drill. Supporters in the USA keep the village supplied with flags and uniforms. One hut has been turned into a shrine to John Frum.

Nearby, in another village, an unnamed cargo cult worships the Duke of Edinburgh as a deity. Songs glorify Prince Philip, whose picture hangs in a hut serving as a shrine. Young virgins are kept as potential brides for the prince who, so far, has failed to turn up. The cult began in the 1980s when village chief Jack Naiva was told about Queen Elizabeth II. Raised in a patriarchal society, Chief Jack reasoned that if the monarch were important, her husband had to be even more so – a god, in fact. And so, a cult was born – surviving Chief Jack, who died in 2009.


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