Cargo cult

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Flags are often flown as part of rituals.
A common symbol used by cargo cults is based on a medical cross (originally a Christian symbol).

Cargo cults are a group of religious movements located around the south Pacific. Early cargo cults arose when tribes encountered colonial explorers, such as Nikolai Miklouho-Maclay who visited Papua New Guinea from 1871 to 1883 and was considered by some locals to be one of their tribal gods. [1] Wealthy visitors are sometimes interpreted as fulfilment of prophecy concerning gifts from gods. The first well documented cult, known as Vailala Madness, was active in the early 1920s. [2] Later cults were strongly influenced by American and Japanese forces in world war two having access to advanced technology that was delivered as cargo via aircraft. [3] The origin of the cargo is thought to be divine and bestowed on the worshippers of the Gods. Some islanders began to crudely imitate military behaviours, such as maintaining mock airfields, flying flags and drilling soldiers armed with bamboo rifles, in the hope they too may receive cargo. Cargo cult beliefs are often accompanied by traditional tribal beliefs such as shamans and magic. A common religious sign is the red cross, originally Christian in origin, that is prominently displayed on medical vehicles.

"You get cargo cults when the outside world, with all its material wealth, suddenly descends on remote, indigenous tribes. [4]"
"In the South Seas there is a cargo cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes land with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they've arranged to imitate things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head like headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas--he's the controller--and they wait for the airplanes to land. They're doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn't work. No airplanes land. [5]"

John Frum, Sulphur Bay, Tanna[edit]

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While many cargo cults are now extinct, Chief Isaac Wan is the leader of one of the John Frum cults that still survives. John Frum, a mythological messianic figure who is said to be American, lives in a nearby volcano Mount Yasur. The cult brought about a revival of traditional practices in defiance of Western missionaries and colonial powers. Approximately 20% of the island of Tanna adhere to the John Frum cult. February 15th is John Frum day, the holiest day of the year and is the occasion for celebration. [6]

"John promised he’ll bring planeloads and shiploads of cargo to us from America if we pray to him [4]"
"You Christians have been waiting 2,000 years for Jesus to return to earth [...] and you haven’t given up hope. [4]"

The belief sometimes coexists with Christianity.

"I’m now a Christian, but like most people on Tanna, I still have John Frum in my heart [4]"

John Frum sometimes is seen in visions after consuming kava, a ritual intoxicant.

Prince Phillip cult[edit]

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Tribesmen with photos of Prince Philip's 2007 visit

There is an active cult based on worship of Prince Philip of the British royal family. (His wife is the Queen of England and head of the Church of England.)


According to Peter Worsley, cargo cults generally originate in the following conditions:[7]

  • In a fragmented society, either culturally or racially, there is a tendency to unify against threats under a new belief system i.e. Religion is the social bond in society.
  • In societies with significant inequality, lower classes seek to find a vehicle that expresses their interests in ways that are independent of established power structures.
  • In the face of repeated military defeats, people seek shelter and meaning in non-miltary institutions, often with a hope that God will intervene to solve the crisis.

Christianity also originated in these circumstances.[8]

Relevance to major religions[edit]

Cargo cults are interesting because of the similarity with other religions and at the same time their obvious absurdity. Richard Carrier has compared the origins of Christianity to cargo cults in their worship of a messianic figure who may not have even existed.[8] The promised return of a messiah, use of traditional rituals, the belief in reward for faith and morality, prophesy fulfilment, wishful thinking, charismatic leaders and misattributing human activity to the divine are common to most major religions around the world. It is likely the origin of these religions was similar to cargo cults, with certain stories being retold and modified until it formed a belief system that self propagates but has little connection to the original events.

The Earthly reward promised by cargo cults are strikingly similar to the teaching of the prosperity gospel in Christianity. Even a heavenly reward is in a sense like a cargo cult belief because it is the hope of divine reward based on scant evidence.

Obviously, there are differences between cargo cults and major religions: there is no reason to believe they came about because of an encounter with an advanced civilization.

See also[edit]


  1. Religion and Anthropology: A Critical Introduction By Brian Morris
  2. [1]
  3. [2]
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 [3]
  5. [4]
  6. [5]
  7. Worsley, Peter (1957). The Trumpet Shall Sound: A Study of 'Cargo Cults' in Melanesia. New York: Schocken books.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Richard Carrier, On the Historicity of Jesus, 2014

External links[edit]