A university lecture by a professor of Anthropology

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Listen to audio recording and answer the questions.

Listen to part of a university lecture by a professor of Anthropology.

Professor: I'd like to talk to you for a few minutes now about cargo cults. Cargo cults are an odd backwater of primitive religious thought, but nevertheless, they do offer some interesting insights into the actual functioning of some early religious beliefs. They're valuable because they can be observed today- remnants of these primitive cults still exist- and one of the most remarkable is the annual celebration of John Frum Day every February the fifteenth in the Republic of Vanuatu. On Johm Frum Day, the villagers dress up in homemade US Army uniforms, fly the Georgia state flag, and march around the town in formation, carrying bamboo rifles on their shoulders. All this is an effort to magically attract the US Army, with its cargoes of cigarettes and canned Spam and and flashlight batteries, back to Vanuatu.

A cargo cult is a kind of body of religious practices that sometimes appears in a traditional tribal society, a culturally isolated society, as a result of the shock of sudden confrontation with another, previously unimagined, technologically advanced culture. The cult focuses on gaining for itself the material wealth, the manufactured goods, the magical inventions, all the wonderful things that the industrialized culture introduces them to- things like canned goods, jars and bottles, fabric and clothes, uh, tents, weapons, dishware- you name it. And, since they cannot comprehend-or do not believe- the real explanations for the sources of this wealth, they attempt to acquire it through the ways they know- through magic and ritual, through such practices as fetishism, idolatry, and sympathetic magic.

Just to remind you- we've already learnt that 'fetishism' is the belief that inanimate objects- amulets, talismans- possess magical powers. Idolatry is simply the worship of idols- statues or other representations- as gods. And sympathetic magic and medicine, as you'll remember, are based on the idea that one thing can affect another because they are similar in some way or are otherwise somehow spiritually connected.

Now, the cargo cults that we know about have been a rather limited phenomenon, both in time and in space. Essentially all of them have developed in the scattered islands of the southwest Pacific, in Micronesia and Melanesia, and they arose between the late nineteenth century and the mid-twentieth century, peaking during the second World War. The indigenous peoples of these island groups- places like Vanuatu, Fiji, Papua New Guinea- are mostly of the same cultural ancestry, and they have many similar traditions and beliefs. This is the region, for instance, where most of the stories of cannibalism have come from. On these islands of limited resources, physical hard times or religious beliefs sometimes drove them to eat each other and the occasional missionary- either as a simple source of food or in order to gain the knowledge or abilities of the eaten, an unfortunate example of sympathetic magic.

Anyway, these cultures were also similar in that their tribal leaders were expected to share any wealth they acquired with the other members of the group, and also, their deceased ancestors were presumed to be watching over the tribe to be sure of the economic comfort of their living descendents. These circumstances all came together to create the cargo cult mentality.

When the new, dominant 'leaders' suddenly arrived- the European explorers and missionaries and colonists that appeared as early as about 1870 or so, and then, after them, the Japanese, Australian and American armies of World War Two- they were not so generous with their mysterious material wealth. And when these powerful people suddenly left, as the US Marines suddenly left Vanuatu at the end of the war, access to their goods disappeared with them.

The natives felt cheated, they felt abandoned, by their gods and ancestors, and a third aspect was added to the rationale of the cargo cults- the belief that they could, through ritual magic, by performing all the right steps and ceremonies, call up the material goods themselves, or that an armageddon was coming, when their gods and ancestors would return and bring with them all the worldly goods that they desired. This latter belief may well have been aided and abetted by their introduction to Christianity, whose ideas were mixed loosely into their belief system- a result of the many years of Christian missionary work in these islands.

On Tanna Island in Vanuatu, where John Frum Day, as I mentioned, still survives, there are bright red crosses- the emblem taken from military ambulances- decorating village gardens as religious icons. And on island hilltops, the islanders have laid out dusty airplane landing strips and built bamboo control towers, where they take turns listening to coconut radios and waving torches as landing signals- all in the hope of attracting the supply planes they continue to expect. On other islands, the cargo cults build large straw-and-bamboo airplanes as decoys to lure other planes down from the sky.

These activities, these ceremonies and rites, give us a vivid, a very graphic, picture of how primitive religious thinking can work. But you know, we should be careful not to assert our own 'superiority' when examining such ideas. Sometimes the Tanna islanders are asked why they are still waiting for such an unlikely salvation- and they often answer that they have only been waiting for about seventy years, while the Christians have been waiting their saviour for almost two thousand years!


Which is NOT true of cargo cults?


Why are red crosses erected on Tanna Island?


Which is NOT a part of the John Frum Day celebrations?


Why does the professor mention cannibalism?


Some South American tribes shrank the heads of their victims. Which traditional religious practice might shrunken heads most likely exemplify?


How does the professor seem to view cargo cults?