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The asrai is a type of aquatic fairy in English folklore and literature. They are usually depicted as female, live in lakes and are similar to the mermaid and nixie. Rather than originating from folklore, the asrai may have been invented by the Scottish poet Robert Williams Buchanan.[1]

Etymology and origin[edit]

The etymology of the word "asrai" is unknown. "Asrey"[2] or "ashray"[3] sometimes appear as spelling variants.

It is unclear whether the asrai was ever part of folk belief. Their oldest known appearance in print was the poem "The Asrai" by Robert Williams Buchanan, first published in April 1872, and followed by a sequel, "The Changeling: A Legend of the Moonlight."[4] The English journalist Robert Francillon, who commissioned the second poem for a special Christmas edition of The Gentleman's Magazine, had originally requested a piece inspired by legends about Bala Lake in Wales. He believed that the asrai were Buchanan's original creation.[1]

The asrai gained renewed attention through the works of British storyteller Ruth Tongue, whose reliability as a folklorist has been questioned.[5] Tongue's collected tales often show signs of drawing from popular fiction.[6]


In Buchanan's poetry, the asrai are pale, gentle beings, older than humanity, who fear light and live beneath a lake. Buchanan's poem "The Changeling" features a male asrai who inhabits a human body, becoming a changeling in search of an immortal soul.

Ruth Tongue attributed stories of the asrai to Cheshire, Shropshire, and the Welsh Border. In her collected work, the asrai are timid and shy, very beautiful, and have webbed feet and green hair. They live for hundreds of years and come up to the surface of the water once each century to bathe in the moonlight. They are long-lived, only aging when exposed to moonlight. Tongue recounts the story of a fisherman who captured an asrai and put it in his boat. It seemed to plead for its freedom in an unknown language, and when the fisherman bound it the touch of its cold wet hands burned his skin like fire, leaving a permanent mark. He covered the asrai with wet weeds, and it continued to protest, its voice getting fainter and fainter. By the time the fisherman reached the shore, the asrai had melted away leaving nothing but a puddle of water in the boat, for the asrai perish if directly exposed too long to the sun.[7][2][8] Their inability to survive daylight is similar to that of trolls from Scandinavian folklore.[9]

Numerous folktale collections have reprinted or retold Tongue's stories. Nancy Arrowsmith describes asrai as always female and standing 2–4 ft (0.61–1.22 m) tall.[10] In a retelling by Rosalind Kerven, the asrai appears with a fishtail instead of legs, and attempts to lure a man with promises of gold and jewels into the deepest part of the lake to drown or simply to trick him. However, she cannot tolerate human coarseness and vulgarity, and this will be enough to frighten her away.[11] This tale had previously been told of a Shropshire mermaid without the term asrai.[12]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ a b Francillon, R. E. (1913). Mid-Victorian memories. pp. 223–226.
  2. ^ a b Tongue, Ruth (1970). Forgotten Folk-Tales of the English Counties. Routledge & Kegan Paul. pp. 24–26. ISBN 0710068336.
  3. ^ McCoy, Edain (1994). A Witch's Guide to Faery Folk: Reclaiming Our Working Relationship with Invisible Helpers. Llewellyn Worldwide. pp. 176–177.
  4. ^ Buchanan, Robert Williams (1884). The Poetical Works of Robert Buchanan. Chatto & Windus. pp. 201-204.
  5. ^ Simpson, Jacqueline, and Stephen Roud (2000). A Dictionary of English Folklore. Oxford University Press.
  6. ^ Harte, Jeremy (2001). "Ruth Tongue the Story-Teller". 3rd Stone. 41: 20.
  7. ^ Briggs, Katharine (1976). An Encyclopedia of Fairies. Pantheon Books. pp. 10–11. ISBN 0394409183.
  8. ^ Briggs, Katharine (1978). The Vanishing People: Fairy Lore and Legends. Pantheon Books. p. 81. ISBN 0394502485.
  9. ^ Lindow, John (2014). Trolls: An Unnatural History. Reaktion Books. p. 40. ISBN 9781780232898.
  10. ^ Arrowsmith, Nancy (2009) [1977]. Field Guide to the Little People. Llewellyn. p. 56. ISBN 9780738715490.
  11. ^ Kerven, Rosalind (2008). English Fairy Tales and Legends. National Trust Books. pp. 120–123, 186–188. ISBN 1-905400-65-9.
  12. ^ Hope, Robert Charles (1893). The Legendary Lore of the Holy Wells of England. Llanerch. p. 139. ISBN 9781861430922.