When tribal groups first make contact with cultures and civilizations outside their own there are often unexpected consequences. Throughout history moments of ‘First Contact’ have led to disease outbreaks, war, and genocide. However, there is also a relatively new and incredibly odd phenomenon tied to first contact events known as Cargo Cults. These strange religions are largely formed out of a single campaign during World War 2. In short, tribal groups across the pacific experienced allied military might, and the resource that followed these military groups during the war in the pacific. The groups only found one appropriate response to these godlike forces; worship. These are the unbelievable stories of the Cargo Cults, namely John Frum.
The Dawn of The Cargo Cult
It was much like any other day in the tribe. The men were hunting in the forests, the women were cooking and caring for the children back in the village. But something strange happened. Massive metallic fortresses appeared on the horizon. Slowly smaller metallic vessels began traveling ashore from the fortresses. Onboard the vessels were people just like those in the tribe, but somehow very different in appearance, language, and stature. They brought with them strange devices capable of setting entire forests on fire, cooling and heating foods at an incredible pace, light as if from the sun but in small packaging. It was an otherworldly experience.
The visitors stayed for quite some time working day in and day out. Sometimes marching in ritualistic fashion through the trees, sometimes waving bars of light and smoke towards airborne metallic vessels that brought unimaginable gifts, other times communicating with beings trapped within small strange boxes that could communicate back with them.
Leaders of the tribe made contact with the strangers and formed a bond. The tribal men would work carrying packages and items around the island in exchange for some of their amazing gifts. The tribe was enamored with their balls of light and tubes full of ready-made food.
Just as fast as they appeared the strangers disappeared. They packed up much of what they brought, boarded their small vessels and returned to the metallic fortress that then vanished over the horizon line. The leaders of the tribe assured that they would return and bring even greater gifts than before. The people just needed to perform the same rituals that beings had performed while they were yet still on the island. The islanders practice these rituals to this day in hopes that these strangers would one day return.
What is a Cargo Cult
The preceding story is a picture of the dawn of many cargo cults during World War 2. At the peak of the battle for the pacific many allied powers set up forward bases of operations on the small islands south of Japan. At these bases, the allied forces would conduct training exercises, form battle plans, and set up storage centers for munitions and food. The military presence on the islands was rarely alone. They were accompanied by the residents of the islands, previously unconnected tribal groups.
These tribes had never interacted with anyone from outside their island. They had never seen any of the trappings of modern technologies. Furthermore, many of them had never seen a white person before. Everything from appearance to activity to the language of this military personnel was utterly unbelievable to these tribal people. Unsurprisingly, tribal leaders began to believe that these people were gods who were visiting their tribe from another realm. This was further reinforced by soldiers who enlisted the help of the tribal men and rewarded them with canned food, refrigerators, and other electric devices.
Religious Rituals in the Cargo Cults
After the allied forces pulled out of the pacific the tribes were left in the absence of the western pleasures to which they had recently become accustomed. Due to the fact that many of these tribes believed that the western forces were messengers of the gods, or in some cases gods themselves, religions began to develop surrounding these encounters. For most of the cargo cults religious symbols include the visiting nation’s flag, priestly garments mimic that of combat uniforms, and rituals include military-style marches and drills. One cargo cult had even recreated an airstrip complete with small fireballs as runway lights, a bamboo structure resembling an air traffic control tower, and airplanes constructed entirely of reeds. It was believed that these practices would please the gods and they would return bearing the many gifts they had originally brought the islanders.
John Frum and the Survival of the Cults
Many of the renditions of Cargo Cults did not last long. Over time, tribes had experienced new contact events and began to understand that these strange people were not gods. However, in a couple of significant cases, religion lived on. If not as a legitimate religion then as a cultural phenomenon.
The most noteworthy of the Cargo Cults is the Cult of John Frum. In this specific cult, adherents followed the mythic John Frum. This godlike being had first made contact with the tribe in the late 1800s and promised to return. When the U.S. military returned in World War 2 the tribe viewed it as the second coming of John Frum. The faith propelled forward by the second coming that came complete with gifts and a better way of life. When the U.S. forces left the island many held on to the belief that they would return again, this time with John Frum. Remnants of this faith are present to this day.
On one quick side note, many religious anthropologists believe that John Frum is a shortening of the longer name given to the tribal peoples on his first visit way back in the late 19th century; John From America.
Cargo Cults are some of the more interesting belief systems to have sprouted up in recent history. It is noteworthy for more than just the odd nature of these beliefs, but for the fact that we can pinpoint exactly where these belief systems came from and how their practices were formed. Some scholars have pointed to other religions and suggested the possibility that they too are the remnants of ancient cargo cults. For some of these thinkers, the ancients had encountered a foreign power and formed a similar response. For others, the ancients had encountered an extraterrestrial power and formed their faith based on that experience (ancient aliens theorist alert). Regardless, cargo cults are incredible.
Learn more about Cargo Cults and the various expressions of Cargo Cults in this episode of Things I Learned Last Night. Jaron and Tim go into detail on the formation of these groups, look at specific examples like John Frum and the fascinating Prince Philip group, and talk about the ramifications of the religious groups.
Things I Learned Last Night is an educational comedy podcast where best friends Jaron Myers and Tim Stone talk about random topics and have fun all along the way. If you like learning, and laughing a whole lot while you do, then you’ll love TILLN. Watch or listen to this episode right now!
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