'He is dead but he has a big family': Tribe that worshipped Prince Philip says his spirit will return

Rebecca Taylor
·Royal Correspondent
·5-min read

Watch: Pacific Tribe That Worships Prince Philip Devastated by Duke's Death

Prince Philip's body will be laid to rest in Windsor on 17 April, following royal protocol for a funeral within eight days of death.

But on the other side of the world, ceremonies are already taking place to remember the Duke of Edinburgh - led by the tribe who considered him a god.

The Prince Philip movement is a sect followed by the Kastom people who live in some of the villages near Tanna, on Vanuatu.

They considered him to be the son of an ancient mountain spirit.  

According to Reuters, there were ceremonies held from Monday, with rituals followed to honour the late duke.

Chief Jack Malia told the villagers: "We allow the kava to clear the way to allow for his spirit to come back and live with us. The same spirit will grow inside one of his family and one day we will reconnect the people of Tanna and England.

"He is dead but he has a big family, who will live with his legacy. See all the pictures we have of him here. He is a good man."

Why was Prince Philip considered a god?

It's not clear when the practice of worship of Philip started, but it's been suggested it was some time around the 1950s or 1960s.

The beginnings of this came about before Philip had even been to the island. He first visited in 1974.

According to The Guardian, ancient tales speak of a mountain spirit's son who travelled to a distant land, married a powerful woman and then returned. 

Anthropologists have said they may have come to the conclusion Philip was the person who fit the description in his marriage to the Queen. 

A man holds a picture of Britain's Prince Philip as late Duke's devotees hold a mourning ceremony in his honour on the island of Tanna in Vanuatu in this screengrab taken from a video on April 12, 2021. REUTERS TV via REUTERS
A man holds a picture of Britain's Prince Philip as late Duke's devotees hold a mourning ceremony in his honour on the island of Tanna in Vanuatu. (Reuters)
Men in traditional dress line the road during a visit by Queen Elizabeth (centre) and Prince Philip (centre, right) to Port Vila, Vanuatu, off the north-east coast of Australia, February 1974. (Photo by McCabe/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Men in traditional dress line the road during a visit by the Queen and Prince Philip to Port Vila, Vanuatu, off the north-east coast of Australia, in February 1974. (McCabe/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

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Kirk Huffman, who has studied the group for decades, said one of the theories for how the people came across the duke was that his photo was displayed alongside the Queen's when Vanuatu was still New Hebrides, a colony administered by Britain and France.

Another expert has suggested it could have been a way for them to take back colonial power, by associating themselves with someone who is married to the person in charge of the Commonwealth.

Their rituals included daily prayers for Philip to bless their banana and yam crops.

They also placed photos of him in their homes. 

Watch: Prince Philip dies: Vanuatu tribe who hailed Duke of Edinburgh as a god will mark his death with ritual wailing

How did Philip react?

It is thought he and the Queen did not know about the reverence in which he was held when they visited the tribe in 1974.

But Philip went on to send photographs of himself to the people in Tanna, including one of him holding a club they had sent him as proof he had received one of their gifts.

In 1978 they sent him the club, called a nal-nal, used to kill pigs, which he then was pictured holding.

He sent another portrait in 2000. 

According to the BBC, those pictures are still treasured today.

Village elder from Tanna island holds a picture of Britain's Prince Philip where he is worshipped in Younanen, Vanuatu May 6, 2017. Picture taken May 6, 2017. REUTERS/Jill Gralow REFILE - CORRECTING ID
Village elder from Tanna island holding a picture of Prince Philip in 2017. Philip is holding the nal-nal in the picture. (Jill Gralow/Reuters)

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The duke met several of them in 2007 when Channel 4 flew some of the tribal leaders to the UK for a television show.

They asked him when he would go back to Tanna, to which he was reported to say "when it turns warm, I will send a message".

The photos were kept by leader Jack Naiva who died in 2009, having not seen him again.

What happens now?

It's not clear if the late duke is the only person worshipped as a deity by the tribespeople, but experts think he will be remembered in the coming weeks before attention turns to a replacement.

Huffman told the Daily Telegraph: "I imagine there will be some ritual wailing, some special dances.

"There will be a focus on the men drinking kava (an infusion made from the root of a pepper plant) – it is the key to opening the door to the intangible world.

"On Tanna it is not drunk as a means of getting drunk. It connects the material world with the non-material world."

There is a suggestion Prince Charles will be regarded as the next god.

Britain's Prince Charles (R) drinks kava with Chief Seni Mao Tirsupe, the President of the Malvatumauri Council of Chiefs, to the Chiefs Nakamal in Port Vila on April 7, 2018.            / AFP PHOTO / Ben BOHANE        (Photo credit should read BEN BOHANE/AFP via Getty Images)
Prince Charles, right, drinks kava with Chief Seni Mao Tirsupe, the president of the Malvatumauri Council of Chiefs, in 2018. (AFP)

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Dan McGarry, who writes for the Vanuatu Daily Post, tweeted: "The people of Vanuatu will sorely miss Prince Philip, whom many revere as a tabu man, who embodied the spirit of Tanna Kastom. That honour will likely pass to Prince Charles.   

"Charles visited the island nation in 2018, and was given the chiefly name Mal Menaringmanu." 

Huffman said the tribal custom is that male descendants get the title of chief, so it would fit that Charles would be seen as carrying on the mission.

He said the movement may keep Prince Philip's name, with one tribesman even saying they are considering starting a political party.

According to ITV, discussions on who will take over from Philip could go on for days, with followers willing to consider people other than Prince Charles.

Also on Tanna, Yakel village chief Albi told AFP: "The spirit of Prince Philip has left his body, but it lives on. It is too soon to say where it will reside." 

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