Dream Angus: The Celtic God of Dreams

Dream Angus: The Celtic God of Dreams

by Alexander McCall Smith


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781841958422
Publisher: Canongate Books
Publication date: 10/05/2006
Series: Myths Series

About the Author

Alexander McCall Smith is the author of the international phenomenon The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series and of The Sunday Philosophy Club series. He was born in what is now known as Zimbabwe and was a law professor at the University of Botswana and at Edinburgh University. He lives in Scotland. In his spare time he is a bassoonist in the RTO (Really Terrible Orchestra).


Edinburgh, Scotland

Date of Birth:

August 24, 1948

Place of Birth:


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The Celtic God of Dreams

By Alexander McCall Smith


Copyright © 2006

Alexander McCall Smith

All right reserved.

ISBN: 1-84195-823-9

Chapter One

There was water

This happened in Ireland, but the memory of it is
in Scotland too. The precise location of things was
not so important then, as there was just the land
and the sea between them, and people came and
went between the lands, and they were brothers
and sisters. The land itself was beautiful, with hills
that ran down to the sea, and there were cold green
waves that broke on the rocks that marked the edge
of the land. There were islands, too, with stretches
of white sand, and behind the white sand there was
the machair, which was made up of meadows on
which grew yellow and blue flowers, tiny flowers.

The gods lived everywhere then, and they moved
among the people. But there were some gods who
had their own place, and they were sometimes very
powerful, as Dagda was. He was one of the great
gods, and his people lived on islands at the very
edge of the world, where there is just the blue of
the sea and the west beyond the blue. They came
to Ireland on a cloud, and lived there. Dagda was
one of them, the good one, and he had great power,
with his cauldron in which there was limitless food,
and his great club, with which he could slay many
men with a single blow. But he was often kind to
men, andhe could bring them back to life with the
other end of the club. He also had fecund fruit trees
which never stopped bearing fruit, and two remarkable
pigs, one of which was always being cooked
while the other was always growing.

There are many stories of Dagda and his doings.
This one is about how he came to father a boy called
Angus, and how Angus delighted all who came
across him. In many ways, this was Dagda's greatest
achievement, that he gave us this fine boy, who
brought dreams to people, and who was loved by
birds and people equally and who still is. For Dream
Angus still comes at night and gives you dreams.
You do not see him do this, but you may spot him
skipping across the heather, his bag of dreams by
his side, and the sight of him, just the sight, may
be enough to make you fall in love. For he is also a
dispenser of love, an Eros.

How was it that Dagda, a great and powerful god,
a leader of warriors, should have had such a son?
One might have thought, surely, that a god like that
would have a son who was skilled in military matters,
rather than a dreamer who fell in love and who
was a charmer of birds. For an explanation of the
gentleness of Angus, we must turn to his mother.
She was a water spirit called Boann. Water spirits
are gentle; their sons are handsome and have a sense
of fun; they sparkle and dart about, just like water,
which is the most playful of the elements.

Boann lived in a river. This was one of those
rivers which was both great and small. There were
places where its bed grew quite broad, and at such
places one might walk across the river without getting
even one's ankles wet. At other places there
were pools, deep and dark, with water the colour
of peat, and in these pools swam trout who lived
for many years and had a great wisdom of matters
pertaining to water and fish. Then there were places
where the river was in-between - not deep, but not
shallow. These were good places for water spirits to

Boann lived in one of these places. She was shy,
as water spirits often are, and it was possible to
walk right past the place where she was and not
see her at all. All that you might see would be a
ripple in the surface of the water, or a splash, perhaps,
of the sort made by an otter or some other
small creature slipping into the water, not enough
to make you turn your head or think of investigating

Boann was gentle, and if, after rain, the river ran
high, it was still always calm when it came to the
place where she lived, as she would smooth the surface
with her breath, which was like a soft, warm
breeze. She was kind, too, and when a holy man
came to the river's edge and asked whether he could
lie down in the water, she readily agreed. She
brought him some honey which she had and let him
suck on the comb until it was drained of sweetness
and all that was left were the wax cells of the bees.

That holy man was tired; he lay back in the water
after he had sucked on the honey and he soon fell
asleep. His head dropped beneath the surface, but
he did not drown, as it is well known that holy men
can live under a river even if ordinary men cannot.
She watched over him, and saw that he was breathing
peacefully, even though he was underwater.

This holy man was still there when morning
came. Boann looked down through the water and
saw that his eves were open, and that he was staring
up at her. She called to him, and he surfaced, coming
up slowly through the clear water and breaking out
into the air with a great shaking of his locks. She
gave him another honeycomb, which again he
sucked dry: Then he sank back beneath the water
once more.

Sometimes the holy man spent all day under the
river; on other occasions he would emerge from the
water and walk off along one of the paths. He would
talk to the people who were working in the fields
and give them his blessings. They would give him
food in return. They all knew that he lived under
the river, but they were respectful of him, and they
did not come to see him there. They knew, too, that
Boann was looking alter him and that they did not
need to do anything for him other than listen
politely when he spoke to them about things that
they did not really understand.

The holy man told Boann many stories. For the
most part these stories were about his boyhood and
about the white dog which he had. This white dog
had a brave heart, and did many fine deeds. Then
he went away, and the holy man never saw him
again, although he sometimes heard him barking
in the distance. There were many stories of this
sort, which Boann listened to, and each time the
holy man told them they were different in some
small detail. Sometimes the dog wore a collar of
gold and sometimes it was a collar of leather.
Sometimes the dog caught a hare, and sometimes
he would pursue and capture a deer. Boann listened
patiently to all these stories and occasionally at
night she dreamed about a white dog, which she
was convinced was the dog of the holy man's boyhood.

Boann was pleased that the holy man had come
to live under her river. She knew that the local
people had seen him, and she knew that he was safe
with them, but she did not want any gods to hear
about him. It was not unknown for gods to become
jealous of holy men, or to be possessive of them,
and she did not want anybody to kill her holy man
or take him away from her place in the river. So if
ever any god came into that part of the country,
Boann would tell the holy man to stay underwater
until she called to him that it was safe to come out.
She also acquired a bell which she would ring if she
spotted a god. This was to be the warning signal
to the holy man to get back into the water if he
was sitting on the bank or walking in the fields.

Boann was, of course, very beautiful, although
very few men had seen her face. Eventually word
reached Dagda that there was a graceful water spirit
living in that river and he decided that he would
see whether her beauty was as striking as was
reported. He picked up his club and set off towards
the river. The sun was high in the sky and his
shadow was short. Nobody would know that Dagda
was coming, because he was the wind and the rain
and the clouds in the sky. Dagda was Ireland, and
Ireland was all about. He was Scotland too, and
lands beyond that.

When he came to the river he saw Boann sitting
upon a rock. She was singing to the holy man, who
had come up out of the water and was drying his
hair in the sun. Dagda stopped and listened to the
song that Boann was singing, it was very beautiful
- like the sound of running water. He was, of
course, immensely jealous, and he decided that he
would kill the holy man as soon as the opportunity
presented itself.

Boann had to go to another place to see her husband,
Elemar. She had not thought of gods who
might be watching; she had not thought of Dagda.

Dagda saw Boann set off, and he puffed out his
cheeks and blew a wind which would help her on
her journey. Then he waited. Now there was nobody
about, nobody who would see him on his murderous
errand. Laying down his great club, he strode across
to the edge of the river and looked down into the
water. There was the holy man, staring up at him,
wondering who it was who had seen fit to disturb
his retreat.

Dagda laughed. A holy man was no match for
him, and he reached down into the water, his great
forearm making small waves, his blunt fingers
snatching at the holy man below. Then he pulled
him out of the water, shook him, and held him high
tip in the sky, as one would hold up a fish one had
caught so that others might admire it. The holy
man could not breathe up there. All about him was
sky and more sky, and he struggled and gasped, his
thin cries lost in the rushing wind that was Dagda's
breath. It was to no avail; he drowned in the sky,
and after he died, as a fish will die in the air, his
eyes were wide, as the eyes of a fish will be, and
his skin turned to scales. The light was silver on
these scales - silver and gold, like the scales of a
trout when it is taken from sweet water. Dagda then
tossed the body of the holy man away, and it cart-wheeled
across the sky before it fell.

Dagda now put on the holy man's clothes, which
had slipped off him when he died. Then, entering
the water, he sank below the surface, making his
Face and his hair look like the lace and hair of the
holy man. There he waited for Boann to come back
from her journey.

At sunset the next day she returned, Dagda lay
quite still as she settled for the night, but when the
stars were out and all was quiet he called to her
from under the river, and he called her in the voice
of the holy man. Boann arose from her bed of reeds
and crossed the river in the darkness, going to the
place where the holy man lived. Dagda, now
revealed, was waiting for her and he held her in his
arms and she immediately conceived of a child.
Boann was secretly pleased by this, as she had been
in love with Dagda but had been frightened by what
her husband would think if she were to be seen in
the company of the powerful god. Fortunately, her
husband had been sent off on an errand by Dagda,
who had also made time stand still for him for a
period of nine months - the time during which
Boann would be bearing Dagda's child.

Dagda, however, did not intend to stay with
Boann. He was already married and had to return
to his own wife. He went away, laughing so loudly
that people woke up and thought that there had
been thunder, and were frightened.

Chapter Two

His child grew within her

Boann was filled with anger that she had been
tricked in this way by Dagda. For several days she
lay in the river weeping - weeping for the humiliation
which the god had visited upon her and
weeping, too, for the holy man, whose late she had
heard about from a man who had seen what had
happened. She had loved the holy man, and she
missed his undemanding company and his often-repeated
stories about his boyhood. But she knew
that soon she would have a child and that this child
would keep her company and make up for the loss
of her friend. So she did not mourn for long.

She went to see her husband, who was in a distant
part of the country. She found him standing
on a rock at the entrance to a valley, tie was perfectly
still, one arm raised as if he were about to
point at something; but the gesture never came, as
Dagda had frozen him. Boann spoke to him,
addressing him as her husband, but he did not
respond. Even when she shouted to him that she
had been taken by Dagda, he did not respond. It
was as if all his senses had gone to sleep and nothing
could awaken him.

Boann carried Elemar back to her river and stood
him by the side of a field. People took him offerings
of food in the evening, leaving them at his perfectly
immobile feet. The next day the offerings
were not there. People pointed to this and said that
it showed that Elemar was eating, although he only
ate late at night when there was nobody about to
see him. In fact, the food was being eaten by large
rats, who passed by that way each night and were
delighted to find a source of good food. The only
person who could have seen this happening was
Elemar, and he could see nothing, because his eves
could not move: not the pupils, not the muscles
within the ball of the eyes, not the eyelids. Nothing
could move.

Boann felt Dagda's child growing within her. She
had not had a child before and she found the experience
a strange and exciting one. As the months
wore on, she became heavier and heavier, and rarely
left her place in the river. The fish, who had been
wary of her when she was quick in the water, now
swam up to her with impunity, staring at her with
their unblinking eyes, moving slowly in the current
of the river, watching her. Some of the fish brought
her food, which they found Further down the river,
gently nudging it into her hand, waiting for her to
grasp it before they swam off. Boann was grateful
for this, and she remembered the names of those
fish who had helped her, writing them down in a
book which she had with her.

When her time came, she moved slowly out of
the water and lay upon the bank. From the river,
the fish watched her silently; a great number of
them had now assembled, and they gazed at her
with wonder as she lay under the sky, looking up
into the blue, the sun upon her hair and brow, like

There was silence, just silence. Then she let out
a great cry and Angus was born. At that moment,
a great flock of birds that had alighted in the nearby
trees rose up in a cloud and wheeled and dipped
through the morning sky. In the river the fish swam
rapidly this way and that and some leaped out of
the water, describing half circles in the air before
falling back again with a great splash.

Angus looked at Boann with his blue eyes. She
kissed him gently and held him in her arms with
all the tenderness of a mother. She knew that this
was a child who would be filled with love and who
would bring that love to all who saw him. She knew
that. She wanted the world to see him, to share in
her pride, but she knew that this was not possible.
She would have to hide him, as Dagda would steal
him if he heard that she had borne him a son. So
she made a basket for him, a small cradle, out of
the rushes that grew there. Angus slept in this
cradle, which floated on the edge of the river, and
was watched over while he slept by Boann, who was
never far away. I let husband was still in his enchanted
coma, but was beginning to show stirrings of life
now - the twitching of a muscle here, the almost
imperceptible movement of a limb there; small
signs that he would not be asleep forever.

There were a number of remarkable things which
happened now. One of these was the appearance
around the infant's head of small birds, of many
different colours. These birds came from the
hedgerows and from the trees, and took turns in
circling Angus as he lax: in his basket. At first Boann
tried to shoo them away, fearing that they would
disturb the baby's sleep, but when she saw that they
did not do this, and that Angus slept soundly even
as the birds sang, she left them unmolested.

Other things happened. People began to have
vivid dreams. One woman who lived not far from
the place where Angus was born had for many years
hoped for a child, but none had come. She and her
husband were wealthy in other ways, but she had
remained barren. She began to dream that she
had a child, and every night this child appeared to
her in her dreams, growing each time from being so
tiny as to be almost invisible, until it was the same
size as a normal baby. She mentioned these dreams
to her husband, who smiled and said, 'That is a
dream baby and it is not a real baby at all.' But she
knew differently, and each night she knew that she
would meet the baby in her dreams and would care
for him. Then one night the dream baby said to
her, 'It is time for me to be born, mother', and when
she awoke there was a baby beside her, and he was
the same baby who had appeared to her in her

'Do not talk about this thing,' her husband
warned her. 'People will not believe you if you tell
them that this is a dream baby.'

The woman remained silent and nobody knew
that her baby had arrived in this way. But they knew
that she was happy.


Excerpted from DREAM ANGUS
by Alexander McCall Smith
Copyright © 2006 by Alexander McCall Smith.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Dream Angus 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
1morechapter on LibraryThing 20 days ago
Dream Angus by Alexander McCall Smith is one of the books of the Canongate Myths. I¿ve only read one other book in the series, The Penelopiad, by Margaret Atwood, and I truly loved it. I enjoyed this one as well, which is a retelling of the myth of the Celtic god of dreams and love. The book starts out with the tales of how Angus came into being and grew up, and then it has separate stories, alternating between modern and ancient times, of Angus and his doings. One of the stories seemed a bit harsh, but in most of them Angus was a giver of good dreams, enabling people (and sometimes animals) to come to peace with their situations. I really enjoy Alexander McCall Smith¿s writing style and I love myths, so I was very happy to read this book. Since both of the books I¿ve read in this series were very enjoyable, I may branch out into the other installments as well.
crazy4hawaii More than 1 year ago
I thought it looked and sounded strange. But I've loved everything I've read by Alexander McCall Smith and so went for it. I was mesmerized within pages. His writing style and gentle characterizations are just so rich and satisfying. How he can flesh out a story and make you care about characters so quickly, with such a few brushstrokes (so to speak), continually amazes me.