I was enjoying a book in Townsville Library the other day (we like free) when my youngest son thrust a different book under my gaze. His was a book on Ancient Egypt. I like Ancient Egypt, and it was a small book, so it was no chore to read it. Chapter headings included the usual suspects: Worship, Recreation, Family Life, Law and Punishment… and I'd made it most of the way through when my attention was snagged by a curious note. An ancient egyptian, said the book, had each year to register their occupation. To fail to do so could mean death. The law applied to everyone, including bakers, farmers, artisans--and here comes the snag--and robbers? Yes, that's right. In Ancient Egypt, one could register to be a professional thief.
The book went on to explain that if said thief was caught with the loot, the victim was still only entitled to recover 75%, leaving, presumably, 25% for Grundy & Sons Robbery Co. How bizarre.
Professional thief with union-accredited ‘I'm nicked. I give up’ headdress.
I'm always on the lookout for societal quirks like that. It's just these sorts of oddities that can grow into interesting fictional cultures with which to populate fictional worlds. At the very least, legitimate thievery could make for some interesting career posters.
But when I later attempted to research Ancient Egypt's professional thieves I ran into a brick wall. The only mention of them I found was on a web page that referenced a book from the 1800s. I was beginning to think someone was having a lend… until I turned up digital copies of two references from the 1880s, which indeed mentioned this curious law, and even gave a name to the official in charge--the Shekh of Thieves. Truly bizarre.
I say two references, but on closer examination one book appeared to have, barring a little commentary, stolen text from the other word for word. Ironic.
The book I was reading before Jos thrust Ancient Egypt under my nose was The Neverending Story, which I think has become one of my favourite books. But more on that later…