There’s an entire unopened can of worms on this site insofar as folklore as concerned, and that’s the fae. Faeries. Fairies. However you want to spell it (I generally go for fae and faeries).
Faerie folklore actually fascinates me and I research it a lot for Wulfgard, one of my primary fictional settings. Thing is, fae are extremely complex and researching them takes a lot of time and work and absolutely mountains of notes.
So I won’t get too into the whole fae thing in this post, seeing as how this post is about a particular member of the fae… the asrai, from English folklore.
Now, there’s a big question about the asrai: did people actually ever believe in them? That’s, of course, a question with a lot of folklore things. In the asrai’s case, firstly, we have no known etymology. Yeah, none at all. That’s a little troublesome. Though most sources also say they are also called “ashray.”
Secondly, we do know that – obviously – there are plenty of “water spirit” legends out there. Heck, asrai have some aspects in common with even things like mermaids and nix/nixie/etc in a lot of legends. It could very much be that “asrai” is just another term for any number of other legends of similar nature.
Possibly the first surviving record of the term “asrai” pops up is in 1872, in a poem by Robert Williams Buchanan. He also wrote a sequel to the poem called “A Changeling: A Legend of the Moonlight,” which connects back to their fae nature (changlings are associated with fae; more on that in another post sometime!). To Buchanan, they are spirits that love nature and die in the sunlight.
There is another record of the term asrai, used by a writer who may or may not have been citing accurate information, as the author was citing only stories told by word of mouth that were supposedly passed down through generations. The problem with citing “local stories” or “stories your grandma told you” is that it’s like playing the telephone game over multiple generations and literally hundreds and thousands of years, and some of those generations don’t even care about it, either. The stories get so distorted over time that they’re basically useless information and no one actually believed any of it. This is why reliable folklore sources come from recovered written works, not from word of mouth – because we can’t trust the collective generational memory (unfortunately), but writing does not change with people’s extrapolations and failing memories. As such, you won’t see any professional citing “local stories” that don’t have a written source, or things a relative told them. It’s kind of like asking a random American for some American history and then taking everything he says as the absolute truth, just because they’re an American. There are late night skits that make jokes about that.
Wow, that was a slight tangent. Anyway…
So we don’t know much about the actual folkloric sources of the asrai itself, but we do know it’s very similar to a lot of other legends and is almost certainly just another take on several other stories, like things about mermaids and other nature spirits. Or the name could’ve been entirely made up by Robert Williams Buchanan. We don’t really know – but he probably got it from somewhere. That being said–
What is an asrai, anyway? They cannot exist long in the sunlight. Does that mean they’re undead?
No, not at all. Many spirits and things couldn’t stand the sun, such as trolls in Norse myth. They are defined as “water spirits,” more often than not. They are described in a lot of different ways, but my favorite source I have on the subject describes them as women, tall and lithe, with translucent skin. Sometimes they are just water, sometimes they have actual bodies of some kind. Generally, they are hundreds of years old.
In Cheshire and Shropshire, there were almost identical stories of fishermen capturing asrai in their boats. The asrai beg to be released, but no one can understand their language. The fishermen in both stories put wet weeds on the asrai even as it groans in the bottom of the boat. By the time they reach the shore, however, there’s nothing left of the asrai but a puddle of water.
In one of the stories, the fisherman handling the asrai tries to tie her up, but touching her burns his hands and scars him for life.
And… that’s it, really! That’s pretty much all we have on asrai in particular… but definitely not on general water spirits and other such nature spirits and water beings. That’s a topic for another time, though. Same for the fae – there’s so much to say about fae I honestly barely know where to start!
As for pop culture: looking around on the internet out of curiosity, I found out that the wood elves in Warhammer are apparently called “asrai” sometimes. I find that weird and interesting, given I know next to nothing about them. Do they turn into water sometimes? Like, water spirits? I don’t even know. I do know they look quite cool and creepy. But hey, either way, that’s cool that they’d use the word.
So there you have it! Curious about what an asrai might be like in a story? Maybe you’re thinking they’d just be water elementals, like in a fantasy video game? I had a different thought. You can find an asrai in my book Wulfgard: The Hunt Never Ends, available here on Amazon – or for free on Wattpad or Royal Road!