Today we shall expound on an interesting topic; that of the cargo cult. Throughout history, technologically superior societies have had run ins with various native cultures. This can produce unanticipated religious beliefs to spark off in new directions. An example of this we greatly enjoy takes place in the pacific theater of war as WWII rages. Surrounding Japan is a large amount of virtually unspoiled islands. American forces sought to create bases of strategic importance when engaging the Japanese, and these islands played a key role. Occasionally, indigenous tribes were employed when building structures and clearing airstrips.
It wasn’t until the close of war however, that this phenomenon truly took root. When the troops departed , cargo (jeeps, rifles, radios, spam, etc) was left behind. The natives were able to claim these items as their own, proclaiming them to be gifts from the gods. Their belief was not that they were man made, but that gods bestowed them upon the outsiders. The fact that the islanders were left with this cargo, was proof that they now gained favor in god’s eyes.
New offshoots of their religions sprouted. These beliefs incorporated interesting attempts to procure additional shipments. Instead of attempting to manufacture these goods, they started to mimic the behaviors that they witnessed armies partake in. Marches and drills took place on islands. Abandoned rifles (or makeshift ones out of sticks) were slung over shoulders. Uniforms were sewn together with American flags painted on them. They even constructed crude transmission towers and yes, coconut radios! The rationale behind such rituals was that the armies had mastered communication with the gods. In fact, this was the way to get in touch with spiritual beings and ancestors.
For many years after the war, sightings of bamboo air craft shrines and newly cleared runways trickled in. Today, the majority WWII era cargo cults have dried up. There are a few however, that still practice their religion today. The most famous is the John Frum cult. On the island of Tanna, Vanuatu there is a belief that a messiah named John Frum will return to bless his followers once again. It is unclear where this name originated, but there are theories ranging from a former army member, to a islander who created this religion in his name. When questioned about the ongoing tradition, they have replied, “You have been waiting for your God to return for 2,000 years. We have only been waiting 70.”
Also note worthy is the interesting identification with regards to race. During the allied cohabitation, the islanders took note of black soldiers that were equal to white soldiers sharing the “cargo”, and attached a mythos to them. It is their held belief that these soldiers were children that were born on the island, kidnapped, raised off island, and returned to them with spoils. Another thought is that they were the reincarnation of ancestors, guided to the island to bring materials from the gods.
In an additional twist, some portions of this population believe an a deity known as Prince Phillip. The emergence of this view gained ground in the middle of the twentieth century when (for what ever reason) they assumed that he was a spirit related to John Frum. In 1974, Prince Phillip and the queen mother visited the island with cargo and trinkets to trade island officials. This further solidified their faith and they know he will return again one day…
Until the next installment…
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