The Asrai and the Fisherman
One moonlit night, a man was out fishing on one of Cheshire’s deep meres when he felt something unusually heavy in his net. Hauling it on board, he was amazed to find in its meshes a beautiful, naked girl with long, green hair, webbed fingers and toes, and no larger than a twelve-year-old child.
Recovering from his initial shock, he recalled having heard tales of the Asrai, a race of shy, gentle water spirits which inhabited the deepest lakes; who only grew by the light of the full moon, and who only surfaced once a century. He had always discounted such stories as myth, but now the evidence lay before him, tangled in his net, struggling to get free. Indeed it, or she, appeared to be trying to tell him something, and was pointing in some agitation to the moon, which was by now setting.
But her speech, which was soft, like ripples in the water, was incomprehensible to him, and though her evident distress caused him some discomfort, he could easily imagine the value of such a find. If nothing else, his children would be delighted to see it, but more, he might be rewarded with hard cash; the owner of the local hall would pay him handsomely to be able to exhibit such a creature in his fishponds.
The Asrai seemed to guess his intention, and put her hand on his arm, appealing to him, but her touch was so cold it hurt, leaving a red mark. The contact appeared to harm her also, for she drew back and curled up in the bottom of the boat, pulling her long hair over herself and weeping.
Remembering how the Asrai were said to be afraid of daylight, he covered her with rushes, and rowed for the lake shore, turning a deaf ear to the creature’s faint cries – which were growing fainter by the minute – until, by sunrise, he arrived back at his jetty.
However pulling back the rushes revealed nothing but a pool of water; the Asrai had vanished, and he was left with nothing but the mark on his arm to show for his night’s exploits.
There was a poor fisherman who went fishing one night on a great mere. It was so big and so deep that people said it was unlucky to fish there as it might disturb the Asrai who lived at the bottom of it.
The Asrai, the old folk said, were a race of water-fairies who brought good fortune to the country round about. They were gentle and good and very shy and no one ever saw them. They lived deep down in the mere and were like beautiful men and women but their hair was green like floating water-weeds and their hands and feet were webbed. Once every hundred years at night they would come to the surface to look at the moon and grow and that would be when someone saw one, so that folk still remembered they really were there. They said, too, that if an Asrai looked on the light of day it died.
The moon was shining as the poor fisherman drew in his net and it was very heavy and he saw he had caught an Asrai.
She was strange and beautiful and he gazed on her in delight. She begged him to let her go but he said her words were only like ripples on the lake shore and he wanted to show her to his children. So he bound her and the touch of her cool, wet hands burned him all his life.
She wept sadly into her long green hair, and in rough pity he flung an armful of wet rushes over her and rowed down lake. He would take her to the great lord’s castle and he could keep her in the fountains there and show her off to his noble guests. She would be in water, thought the fisherman to himself, trying to forget how shallow the fountains were.
So he rowed long and steadily as the moon sank. And as it went down the sighs and gentle cries of the Asrai grew less. They had rung in his ears like little, lamenting waves; he was glad he couldn’t hear them any more, even if the great lord would pay him well.
At sun-rise he reached the end of the lake and in pride pulled aside the pile of sodden covering reeds.
There was nothing below them but the wet floor-boards.
A fisherman was out with a drag-net on the lake at the dark of the night.
As the moon rose, he moved his boat into the shadows. His net grew heavy, and he had trouble to pull it in. When the full moon shone out he saw that he had caught an Asrai. It was a wonderfully beautiful, gentle creature to look at.
He had heard old people say these fairies only came up from their cool, deep homes below the water once in a hundred years, to look at the moon and to grow.
As this one seemed about the size of a twelve-year maid, the man could not guess how very, very old it must be.
He spoke to it, for it did not make him afraid, and it seemed to beg him to let it go, but its speech only sounded to him like the ripples among the lake-side sedges. The fisherman had half-a-mind to set it free, but he wanted to show it to his children, and then he began to think how the rich folk in the castle might like to show it in their fish-ponds, and would pay him well. So he hardened his heart, and began the long row homewards.
The Asrai got one arm out of the net, and pointed again and again to the waning moon, and then laid a hand on his arm, – ‘like cool foam, the touch was,’ he said later. But it seemed that his human warmth hurt it, for it shrank away from him, and huddled in the bottom of the boat, covering itself with its long, green hair. He was afraid the light of day might be too strong for it, and covered it with wet rushes. The lake was long, and the sun had risen by the time he got to his own creek.
He drew the boat ashore, and lifted the rushes away from where the Asrai had lain. His net was empty, and a damp patch was all there was left of it. But the arm that it had touched was icy cold, all the rest of his life, and nothing could warm it.
Notes The main interest in this rare legend lies in the very clear description of these gentle, shy water people. They seem akin to the Welsh morgans (lake spirits) in their love of deep water, and to the Highland fuath (a malicious and dangerous fairy) in their inability to live in daylight. But they are far less dangerous than the savage fuath, or even the Norse ‘nick’, and seem to belong to an offshoot of the gentle and ancient elf-folk, despite their selkie-like webbed hands and feet. (The selkies were gentle and benevolent seal people of the Orkneys.)
One version of this tale speaks of the Asrai as the size of a twelve-year-old child, ‘so he could guess how very old she must be’. Presumably the Asrai were born very small, and grew gradually throughout their lives.
The following passages contain further references to this rare and almost lost belief:
(a) A Birmingham friend told me that in the 1950s, on a family holiday to the Cheshire-Shropshire area, her sister’s little boy went fishing with a very old great-uncle. When they came to a mere, the old man drew the child away. ‘Too deep for either of us,’ he said. ‘’Tis deep enough for an Asrey [Asrai].’ The little boy asked at home what an Asrai was. His family thought it might be a local name for a newt or an eel.
(b) ‘We had a Welsh maid from Flint at “The Laurels” and she would never go near the canal after midday. If the moon were coming to the full she called it an “Asrai night”.’
(c) ‘There was an old man near Brown Moss who had a red burn across his wrist which never went all his life. Nobody spoke of it aloud, but my grandfather’s folk who knew him said he had tried to hold an Asrai prisoner.’
(d) ‘She had a soft voice to her like an Asrey.’
In Cheshire and Shropshire, a full-moon night is called an Asrai night. It is then that the gentle, shy Asrai come to the surface of the water to look at the moon.
Though only the size of children, the Asrai are many hundreds of years old. They can only grow in the moonlight and can only surface once every century. If a single ray of sun touches them, they die immediately, melting into a pool of water. Their greatest enemy is man. Once a man has viewed their beauty, he tries to capture them.
Identification: Usually two to four feet high, they are always female and very beautiful, with long green hair and webbed feet. They wear no clothes and are benevolent and shy.
Habitat: They are English and live deep underwater, in cold lake bottoms or in the sea. They cannot live on land.
A fisherman was out fishing one full-moon night when he felt something tugging at his nets. He pulled them in and saw the most beautiful girl he had ever set eyes on. She was an Asrai.
He couldn’t bring himself to throw her back into the lake, so he dragged her up into the boat and covered her with rushes to keep her warm. She was as cold as ice and his hand burned where he had touched her.
He rowed to the other side of the lake, trying to ignore her crying. As he reached the opposite shore, the sun rose. The Asrai let out a scream. The man had nothing to show for his night’s work but a pool of water in the bottom of his boat and a paralysed hand.
This rather poignant story reverses the more usual state of affairs, where men are the victims of female water spirits, who use their beauty to lure infatuated men to their deaths. In this case however it is the Asrai’s beauty that results in her death, as the fisherman cannot bear to let her go.
There is a contradiction between the story and the notes. Version 2 contains the line ‘As this one seemed about the size of a twelve-year maid, the man could not guess how very, very old it must be.’ but Ruth Tongue’s notes say ‘…so he could guess how very old she must be’ [my italics]. Is the ‘not’ in the story a printer’s error? Since Katharine M Briggs, who reproduces this version in her A Dictionary of British Folk-Tales in the English Language (Vol 1, Part B), includes the ‘not’, I assume this is correct, and that the mistake was Ruth Tongue’s when she came to write her notes. In the end it doesn’t make much difference, since the ‘not’ is more a rhetorical device than a negation: either way it’s saying that the Asrai is ‘very, very old’ – it’s just a matter of the fisherman being unable to tell how old. The remark about growing with age is somewhat unusual however; water nymphs, indeed most supernatural creatures, are generally assumed to be always full-sized, not growing in height with age in the human sense. In fact they typically do not show any signs of aging at all.
One unfortunate thing about the story of the Asrai related here is that it comes from only one printed source. Nancy Arrowsmith and later writers are almost without doubt using this same source: Ruth Tongue’s tale. There is no doubt that she has told it in her own way, and elaborated on whatever source she herself used: the question is, how much is her own creation? In her obituary in Folklore, in 1983 the caution is made “She should be regarded as a creative singer and storyteller reworking fragments of tradition, not as a reliable collector.” and “…in Forgotten Folktales she gives only the vaguest hints as to where, when, and from whom she had obtained the stories; any notes she may have made at the time were lost in moves and fires.” In other words, she tells a good story, but from a folklorist’s point of view, her work shouldn’t be taken as accurate renderings of existing folktales.
So where does that leave us? Though her cited sources cannot be checked, we can assume they are fundamentally reliable: it is more a matter of how much of the specific tale she tells was invented by her. What we really need is a printed source that at least recognises the prior existence of the asrai as she describes it. Luckily there is one – possibly more, though one was all I could find – in the form of a poem called The Asrai, by Robert Williams Buchanan, which appeared in the April 1872 edition of The Saint Pauls Magazine. There are in fact two by him of the same name: The Asrai (Prologue To The Changeling), and The Changeling. A Legend of the Moonlight. Part 1. The Asrai. Because the poems themselves are written by Robert Buchanan as original material, rather than being a relation of a traditional folktale, I’ll just quote those lines that are pertinent.
Lines taken from The Asrai (Prologue To The Changeling.)
The Asrai grew of three—fire, water, air—
Not earth,—they were not earthly. That was ere
The opening of the golden eye of day:
The world was silvern,—moonlight mystical
Flooded her silent continents and seas,—
And in green places the pale Asrai walked
To deep and melancholy melody,
Musing, and cast no shades.
‘These could not die
As men die; Death came later; pale yet fair,
Pensive yet happy, in the lonely light
The Asrai wander’d, choosing for their homes
All gentle places—valleys mossy deep,
Star-haunted waters, yellow strips of sand
Kissing the sad edge of the shimmering sea,
And porphyry caverns in the gaunt hillsides,
Frosted with gems and dripping diamond dews
In mossy basins where the water black
Bubbled with wondrous breath.
Lines taken from The Changeling. A Legend Of The Moonlight. I. The Asrai.
And the earth was wrapped in a starry night,
And the only lights that the eyes might mark
Were the cold still spheres of a moon snow-white;
Ev’n then, of the dew and the crystal air,
And the moonray mild, were the Asrai made;
And they walked and mused in the midnight air,
But they had no souls and they cast no shade.
They knew no hunger and mad desire,
No bitter passion of mortal birth,
For they were not fashion’d, like Man, from fire,
They were not leavened, like Man, with earth—
Cold they were as the pale moonbeam,
Cold and pure as a vestal’s dream.
Serene they dwelt in a silvern world,
Where throbbing waters stole dusky-white,
Washing the feet of dark capes star-pearl’d,
And arch’d by rainbows of rippling light.
And when to the pæan of living things,
To the cry of the new-born worlds around,
Out rolled the Sun, like a shape with wings,
Mighty with odour, and flame, and sound;
As the dim dew shaken from Earth’s dark hair,
While she woke and gladdened supremely fair,
In the glorious gleam of the natal ray,
The pallid Asrai faded away!
Beyond their darkness. But ever, by night,
When the moon arose with her gentle light,
The Asrai, hidden from human seeing,
Drank the moonlight that was their being,—
Stirring about with a stealthy tread
On the mountain side, on the water’s bed,
Or singing low and clasping hands,
Shadowless moving on shining sands.
So, in Robert Buchanan’s vision, the asrai were not simply nocturnal; they lived before the sun came into existence, and died when it first appeared. Obviously that is his own poetical version, but at least it supports the idea of their not being able to survive in sunlight. He also specifically mentions that they ‘Drank the moonlight that was their being’, which goes along with Ruth Tongue’s description of their ‘growing in the moonlight’. It should be noted that to him the moonlight was their sustenance: he didn’t refer to their growing physically in size, which may well be Ruth Tongue’s own interpretation. As noted above, supernatural creatures are very rarely described as growing with age. The idea that they only surface once a century may also by her invention; it is not a motif I’ve seen elsewhere. Another thing he doesn’t mention is their diminutive size, or that they are purely aquatic creatures (indeed he describes them as inhabiting valleys and caves). We have only Ruth Tongue to go by regarding their being the size of children, that they have webbed fingers and toes, and that they have green hair, but at least the oral sources she cites do go along with her description that they only live in deep meres, and are associated with moonlight, the latter point being one which appears in all three sources. The ‘freezing touch’ is also borne out by one of her oral sources.
In the end we have too little material to say much for sure. It’s even possible that Robert Buchanan invented them, and that it was his poems that led to the folk-belief. This is highly unlikely, however: it is more possible that he, having been born in Staffordshire, had some childhood memory of them.
One minor point that may have relevance is the footnote “From the author’s recollections of an account in local papers published between 1875 and 1912.” At first this is a hopelessly vague citation – what local paper? Which year? But it’s interesting that Robert Buchanan’s poems would have appeared just before the first date of 1875. It’s faintly possible that their publication may have triggered the account Ruth Tongure refers to. It’s a very tenuous connection, and it wouldn’t help us know what exactly appeared in the newspaper account, but it’s something to bear in mind.
As Katharine M Briggs remarks in the notes to the story in her book, the ‘paralysed limb’ motif comes up occasionally in stories where a person touches a supernatural creature, or is touched by one, though the effects are usually more severe than those described in the tale of the asrai.
The idea of water spirits being turned to water or jelly on exposure to light can be found elsewhere. The example below comes from one of the notes appended to the tale of the Brollachan, in JF Campbell’s Popular Tales of the West Highlands, regarding the fuath, though in this case the light comes from lanterns rather than sunlight:
The word spelt Vough, is probably spelt from ear; but it is the Gaelic word Fuath, which is spelt Fouah in the map of the estate where the mill is. The story was told in Gaelic to D. M., gamekeeper, and written by him in English.
Of the same mill another story was got from the same source, called—
1. MOULION NA FUADH. One of John Bethune’s forebears, who lived in Tubernan, laid a bet that he would seize the kelpie of Moulin na Fouah and bring her bound to the inn at Inveran. He procured a brown, right-sided, maned horse, and a brown black-muzzled dog; and, by the help of the latter, having secured the Vough, he tied her on the horse behind him, and galloped away. She was very fierce, but he kept her quiet by pinning her down with an awl and a needle. Crossing the burn at the further side of Loch Midgal, she became so restless that he stuck the shoemaker’s and the tailor’s weapons into her with great violence. She cried out, “Pierce me with the awl, but keep that slender hair-like slave (the needle) out of me.” When he reached the clachan of Inveran, where his companions were anxiously waiting for him, he called to them to come out and see the Vough. Then they came out with lights, but as the light fell upon her she dropt off, and fell to earth like the remains of a fallen star—a small lump of jelly. (These jellies are often seen on the moors; dropt stars resembling the medusie on the shore—COLLECTOR. They are white, do not seem to be attached to the ground, and are always attributed to the stars. They are common on moors, and I do not know what they are. – J. F. C.)