Well-Pissers and Water Goblins: What the Monsters of Hálfs saga ok Hálfsrekka Mean
By Helen Leslie-Jacobsen
Paper given to the Research Group in Old Norse, University of Bergen (2011)
Abstract: A creature who seems to desecrate wells, a mountain in the shape of a man that rises out the sea, and a spiteful, laughing aquatic goblin: thus runs the cast of monsters found in the saga Hálfs saga ok Hálfsrekka. They are among the most remarkable and interesting monsters of the Old Norse legendary sagas, each bearing a strong relationship to the physical landscape around them and each making prophecies that seem to interfere directly in human affairs. My paper discusses how they function in the landscape depicted in Hálfs saga and suggests possible sources and analogues.
The saga is preserved in one vellum (GKS 2845 4to) from c.1450 and a number of younger paper manuscripts. I will argue that the brunnmigi, the well-pissing goblin, would have been understood by the saga’s contemporary audience as a mocking reference to the activities of Bishop Guðbrandr Arason, Bishop of Hólar from 1203 to 1237. The second monster I will consider is the mysterious fjall, that rises out of the sea in the north to speak a prophetic verse in a distinctly hazy blending of landscape and monster. The final monster, the laughing water goblin plucked of the sea, is a creature attested elsewhere in Old Norse literature, and I will consider the other instances of this small beast and its connections to stories about Merlin as analogues and possible sources.
Although preserved in later manuscripts, Hálfs saga ok Hálfsrekka is likely to have been composed in the mid to late thirteenth century, and my last point will ponder whether this saga shows connections with Sturla Þórðarson, one of the chief members of the prominent and powerful Sturlung clan, and suggest that the supernatural creatures in the narrative of Hálfs saga interact with the landscape of the saga to produce and promote a social message based in and on the changing social situation contemporary to Sturla and his milieu around the time when Iceland swore oaths of allegiance to Norway in 1262-3.
Top Image: Old well, photo by Ilya Tararov / Flickr