Page:Primitive Culture Vol 1.djvu/101

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83
POPULAR SAYINGS.

corresponding processes of magic — as divination in sport made gambling in earnest.

Seeking more examples of the lasting on of fixed habits among mankind, let us glance at a group of time-honoured traditional sayings, old saws which have a special interest as cases of survival. Even when the real signification of these phrases has faded out of men's minds, and they have sunk into sheer nonsense, or have been overlaid with some modern superficial meaning, still the old formulas are handed on, often gaining more in mystery than they lose in sense. We may hear people talk of 'buying a pig in a poke,' whose acquaintance with English does not extend to knowing what a poke is. And certainly those who wish to say that they have a great mind to something, and who express themselves by declaring that they have 'a month's mind' to it, can have no conception of the hopeless nonsense they are making of the old term of the 'month's mind,' which was really the monthly service for a dead man's soul, whereby he was kept in mind or remembrance. The proper sense of the phrase 'sowing his wild oats' seems generally lost in our modern use of it. No doubt it once implied that these ill weeds would spring up in later years, and how hard it would then be to root them out. Like the enemy in the parable, the Scandinavian Loki, the mischief-maker, is proverbially said in Jutland to sow his oats ('nu saaer Lokken sin havre'), and the name of 'Loki's oats' (Lokeshavre) is given in Danish to the wild oats (avena fatua).[1] Sayings which have their source in some obsolete custom or tale, of course lie especially open to such ill-usage. It has become mere English to talk of an 'unlicked cub' who 'wants licking into shape,' while few remember the explanation of these phrases from Pliny's story that bears are born as eyeless, hairless, shapeless lumps of white flesh, and have afterwards to be licked into form.[2]

Again, in relics of old magic and religion, we have some-

  1. Grimm, 'Deutsche Myth.' p. 222.
  2. Plin. viii. 54.