Vanuatu: the island where Prince Philip was worshipped as the son of an ancient mountain god

The people of Yaohnanen have a shrine to the duke, which many of them pray at each night

While the Duke of Edinburgh was regarded by many in the UK and commonwealth as an important man, few revered him to the same extent as the South Pacific tribe who worship him as a messiah-like figure.

Members of a tribe in the archipelago of Vanuatu have prayed to him daily for decades, and have celebrated events such as royal weddings and his stepping back from royal duties in 2018.

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The people of Yaohnanen have a shrine featuring a Union Flag and pictures of the Duke of Edinburgh, some of which he sent himself.

Sikor Natuan, the son of the local chief, holds two official portraits (one holding a pig-killing club, L) of Britain's Prince Philip in front of the chief's hut in the remote village of Yaohnanen on Tanna in Vanuatu on August 6, 2010. (Photo: TORSTEN BLACKWOOD/AFP via Getty Images)

‘The son of a mountain god’

Members of the Yaohnanen tribe of Tanna, one of the islands which makes up the Republic of Vanuatu in the South Pacific, worship the duke as a divine figure.

Though it is unclear exactly when the people of the Yaohnanen tribe began to believe this, the belief comes from an ancient legend on the island, about the pale-skinned son of their mountain spirit god.

According to the legend, the son of their god had travelled across the world to a distant land and married a powerful woman, but would some day return to the island.

It seems the villagers began worshipping Prince Philip sometime in the 1960s, after linking him to the ancient tale through pictures they’d seen of him and the Queen.

Though the duke never visited the island of Tanna itself, Vanuatuans did see him on at least one occasion.

‘The true messiah’

When Prince Philip and Queen Elizabeth II visited Vanuatu in 1974, Jack Naiva, a tribal chief, saw the prince as he paddled a traditional war canoe to greet the royal yacht.

He was quoted as saying: “I saw him standing on the deck in his white uniform I knew then that he was the true messiah.”

The prince was not aware of the islanders worshipping him until a few years later when the high commissioner of the region informed him.

Prince Philip sent the Yaohnanen tribe a signed official photograph of himself, which the villagers responded to with a traditional club called a nal-nal, used to kill pigs.

The duke then replied to this with a picture of himself holding the club, and the image is now carried around by members of the tribe and features in their shrine, along with another photo he sent in 2000.

While Philip never managed to travel to the island of Tanna, where his shrine is located, his daughter Princess Anne made the journey in 2014.

And some members of the tribe were able to meet him in Britain, as part of a Channel 4 television show in which five Tanna men were brought to the UK, culminating in a meeting off-screen with the prince, where gifts were exchanged.

‘I can’t be a god’

Speaking to the BBC after the announcement of the duke’s death, former archbishop of York and friend of the royal family, Dr John Sentamu, described a discussion he had with Philip about his devotees in the South Pacific.

Describing the prince’s strong sense of religion and belief in Christianity, as well as his humour, Mr Sentamu said: “I said to him what do you feel about being called a god’?

“He said, ‘have you ever seen a god in human flesh, like you, apart from Christ? When they call me a god, I can’t be a god’.”

Mr Sentamu laughed as he recounted the duke adding: “but if you want, you can be their god?”

More NationalWorld coverage of the life of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh