[Friday] A is for Arabella and Appalachia

Friday posts are written by Sage of the blog Sage and Starshine. Every week or so they explore a different aspect of the Otherfaith through the letters of the alphabet.

The majority of my life I’ve spent nestled in the Appalachian Mountains ,and I’ve got a complicated relationship with my home as I’m sure many people do. I’ve grown to love the Blue Ridge and Shenandoah Valley with all my heart. When I first started reading through Otherfaith essays and discovered that one of the gods was said to originate in Appalachia, I felt happy and even a bit smug to see this region that’s so much a part of me represented in the mythology of the Other People. Appalachia doesn’t often get the best representation. In fact, it gets shit on a lot in America: by Northerners making fun of Southerners, by Southerners making fun of “those mountain folks.” And as much as I hate to admit it, it got shit on by Littler-Than-I-Am-Now Sage who often wished to be growing up in literally any other part of the country but this one.

When I was younger I didn’t appreciate the beauty that surrounded me, especially not when my family moved from a relatively large town to a small, 6000-person city in a small, 22,000-person county. This move happened when I was fourteen and just about to start high school; I remember hating my new place of residence with a passion. My own classism at the time certainly played a role in this. After moving, my family went from what I had assumed was “normal” middle class to being one of the richest families in town. To my ear, many of my peers at school had thick accents; many of them also came from blue-collar households, who I had never bumped elbows with before in my life. I was unhappy and out of place, even more so as a stranger in a town where everyone had known each other from birth. That certainly added to the natural alienation that most adolescents face, especially in their high school years.

I was painfully bright and painfully miserable, at that point undiagnosed with and unsupported in my depression and anxiety issues and completely incapable of normal social interaction with others my own age. Add to this my burgeoning realization that my childhood religion was incompatible with either my growing sense of ethics or my sexual and gender identities and all I wanted was out. I fled to a woman’s college in Pennsylvania, not far from Philadelphia, where the landscape was flat and people shared (so I thought) the same values I had, where my intelligence and queerness wouldn’t feel so thoroughly rejected by the world around me. That was a mistake. (Not the fleeing, necessarily, but where I fled to, which to put it mildly was an incredibly toxic environment for me. But that was another life.) I transferred to a college back South, not far from my childhood home in fact, and finished up a degree in religious studies before moving back to my small town in my small county. Even then, as a Real Live Adult with my official piece of college paper I’d gone into debt over, I felt some shame at moving back home – though I felt none of the persistent unhappiness I’d felt as a teenager longing to be somewhere else.

You might be asking yourself at this point – who the hell is this person and why are they yammering on about whether they did or did not like where they grew up (because seriously, who likes their hometown anyway?) and what on earth does this have to do with the Otherfaith? Well, nothing, to be honest. And everything at the same time. Stories are often like that.

This one is mine.

Coming to love Appalachia involved a homecoming of its own, several times over. First, I went out of state for my first college and chose to transfer at an awkward time in the academic year, meaning my options for transferring into another college the following semester were limited. One college about 45 minutes from my hometown had an open rolling admissions policy, which is where I ended up graduating from. (It’s a private religious college in a conservative part of the state. I started a Pagan club there which is still functioning to this day. It was a fun two years.) Second, I started slowly and awkwardly coming into my own as a religious person after having fled my mixed Presbyterian/Baptist upbringing. Generic Paganism – especially the Dianic Neo-Wicca flavor of it I’d found at my first college – was about as spiritually nutritious to me as a piece of shag carpet. I wasn’t That Sort of Pagan. And I wasn’t (this is number three, by the way) cisgender, either. That took a long time to come to terms with; lots of soul searching, mixed with the stress of dealing with the trauma my first college had brought me. And finally, I had to return to my own heart, cutting myself away from a relationship which meant the moon and stars to me but was ultimately destroying my (and hers, I think) heart.

Coming back to my tiny town in my rural county in the heart of Appalachia – coming home – gave me something I never expected. I found room to breathe.

My eyes opened and I realized just how fucking glorious the natural world was around me. I’ve driven down the Blue Ridge Parkway and been up and down mountainous roads with the forests in a riotous orgy of summertime life and seen the leaves exploding with fiery colors as the harvest crept near. I’ve seen the odd yet sensible occurrence of rural cities: fairly dense population centers surrounded by farmlands and national forest. (Don’t ever let anyone tell you heartless suburbia is your only remaining option after city and country living.) I’ve come to appreciate, really value and not just mildly tolerate, the people who live here too, both those like me and those nothing like me at all. I can guess where someone’s hometown is if they live within a 50-mile radius of here just based on their accent – because everyone’s words are so unique and nuanced, and because as much as I hated it growing up, I’ve got some of that in my voice too. The mountains are as much within us as they are around us, and they shelter their own.

Which is not to say I’m suddenly starry-eyed about every aspect of my home; there are historic and recent stains in our ledgers, including the modern revival of individuals who (I am being 100% literal) stand on street corners waving the Confederate flag, spew revisionist history, and are as serious and non-ironic as can be when professing their own oppression at not being allowed access to official county flagpoles. (See: Lee-Jackson Day, an actual recognized holiday in my state and currently being celebrated with gusto in the town where I work.) Long before that we have to face the systematic destruction of native peoples’ homes, lives, and ways of life to make room for my ancestors. And of course, there are religious institutions here that hold firm to outspoken misogyny, queerphobia, and transphobia.

I’ve gone from looking at these issues for reasons why I could identify with my place of birth, or didn’t want to identify with it, to understanding that in some way I am part of these narratives. If I were living in a large city I’d be part of the narrative of gentrification and urban homelessness, too. (I’m sure I still am to an extent, simply by virtue of my skin color and socioeconomic background.) I don’t have the right to turn away from my community because its -isms make me uncomfortable. I can’t magic myself not-Southern, not-Appalachian because I’m appalled at the physical and structural violence that continues to this day and likely will do so far into the future. This is my home and I need to understand how it has shaped me before I can start shaping it in return.

So, again you might be asking… what does this have to do with the Otherfaith? Let’s steer the conversation toward the spirit Arabella. Arabella is part of the Laetha, a deity made up of several individual spirits who are at times united with or opposed to each other. Two of these spirits were previously humans from our world: Asier, found by the Dierne in the American Southwest, and Arabella, who fell through to Western Faery from Appalachia. The first of the Otherfaith gods we knew about all come from a specific somewhere, whether it’s a particular Faerie Queen’s fiefdom, a certain river, or the palace of stars overhead. For the first spirit who would become the Laetha, that original home is our realm. Arabella is in many ways an embodied deity for me because she’s not just from Earth, not just from America, but specifically my mountains. Maybe not my part of Appalachia – after all, the mountains stretch from Maine to Georgia – but some part of this geographical area just the same. And because we don’t have (perhaps never will have) anything more specific, all of the Appalachians are to me, in some way, Arabella’s home.

The Laetha is a complex goddess whose mythic arc appeals to me on a very personal level. At first, Arabella is rejected by the land when she arrives in the West; her very identity as a human is a fatal flaw. The Clarene’s attempts to save Arabella go awry (thanks to this jerk over here) and she is reborn as a pain- and rage-filled bird of faery fire, destroying and oppressing all in her path. When the Firebird is finally stopped her soul is shattered and she becomes the many-selved deity she is today. Arabella’s wounds are healed, but scars remain. The West recovers and rebuilds, but there are entire swaths of forest, farmland, and homestead that still smolder and smoke to this day. Despite her original roots in humanity through Arabella, the Laetha is now perhaps the least human of all the gods.

I see this story in myself; I see it in the history of the world around me; I see it etched into the mountaintops and the people here and by those who are not here. The struggle for humanity is a visceral and bloody one. Identity is both central and peripheral in this tale, something that can be lost and transformed and (in a fashion) discovered anew. What happens in our stories has far-reaching, perhaps even permanent consequences, and the scars of who we were and what we have done remain with us until the end. At the same time, the Laetha reminds us that life irrevocably goes on, with or without us, and we’ll have to make of that what we will. We cannot, should not aim to, alter the past; all we can do is reorient our compass and continue our sojourn Home.

7 thoughts on “[Friday] A is for Arabella and Appalachia

  1. I wish I’d paid more attention when I read about the Laetha about a year ago. I missed that Arabella came from VA!

    I’m piecing together some local cultus myself–I’m on the opposite side of the state, closer to the Chesapeake–and it’s really interesting that you mention a Firebird. There was apparently a story told by some members of the Powhatan Confederacy (or maybe the Monacan Nation? I think the former, though) that the Great Dismal Swamp was once home to a large firebird that made its nest there (or died there in some other versions of the story). Portions of the Swamp are more or less constantly on fire, because lightning-induced wildfires will travel down into underground caverns where rotted-out root systems lie. They can burn there for decades, apparently.

    I didn’t know if you knew about that–I’m assuming you do, since you grew up in VA, but if not, hey. Seems like a pretty decent corroboration of your work.

    • Hi there fellow Virginian! Just to clarify, we only know at this point that Arabella is from Appalachia. /I/ live in the Virginia leg of the Appalachians and that obviously colors my own understanding of her, but we don’t yet (may not ever) know an exact location for Arabella. I’ve got my own pet theories but they’re more creative musings than anything.

      That said, I am 100% behind embodied divinity and seeing the gods where you are, and the fact we’ve got a Firebird legend linked to the Great Dismal Swamp is fantastic. Have you ever been? I’ve spent most of my life just in Southwest/Central Southwest Virginia and usually only make it east if I’m going to Busch Gardens or the beach. :)

      • I haven’t ever been–family was too busy to travel widely when I was little, and it seems I’m carrying on that tradition. I already need to go for multiple pilgrimage reasons, though–my own regional cultus considers the Great Dismal Swamp sacred to Haides, Persephone, and Dionysos.

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