A common trope in fiction is the "life debt," wherein two characters become "bound together by a bond of oath" because one has saved the other's life.

We consumers of media have seen this concept of a "life debt" haphazardly bandied about... from Gilligan's Island to Star Wars.

  • Often the two characters are strangers when the life-saving incident occurs
  • Often one of the characters comes from a primitive culture wherein the tradition of a "life debt" is an unavoidable consequence
  • either the person who gets saved feels indebted to the savior, and thereafter swears allegiance or the person who is the savior prevents the saved person from "meeting his fate" and thereafter must take responsibility for changing fate by watching over the person who was saved
  • the story may later include a role-reversal scenario that absolves the subservient person from further responsibility

Wikipedia defines the "life debt" as a purely "literary phenomenon" - but can you think of any real-world cultures that are documented as having this tradition?

If so, what are the determining cultural factors that govern which person becomes indebted, subservient or responsible?

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    I'd think, in the real world, this kind of formal obligation would get very tangled and impractical. It wouldn't be hard to imagine a scenario where the actions of a group save the lives of another group, how would 'life debt' work in such a situation? What if they save your life only as a byproduct of saving their own? – Steve Bird Mar 14 '17 at 10:48
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    Gillian's Island wasn't a documentary? WOOKIES AREN'T REAL?! – Schwern Mar 16 '17 at 20:36
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    @Schwern - the point of the discussion is whether or not a life debt is real. Should I have referenced "Robinson Crusoe" and Clavell's "Gai-Jin" instead? – Everett Steed Mar 17 '17 at 4:22
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    @EverettSteed I'm kidding. – Schwern Mar 17 '17 at 4:23

In Adomnán of Iona's Life of St. Columba (Book 2, Chapter 39), the author speaks of a man from Derry who swore an oath of slavery to a man who saved him from the death penalty. He later ran away and ended up in Scotland, where he met St. Columba.

The man, named Librán of the reed-bed, explains his his back-story thus:

I killed a fellow. After this I was held in chains as a guilty man. But a relative of mine...came to my rescue in the nick of time. He paid what was needed to get me off though I was bound in chains, and he saved me, though guilty, from death. After he had bought my release, I promised to him with a binding oath that I should serve him all the days of my life.

Source: Adomnán of Iona, Life of St. Columba (II, 39), ca. AD 700, trans. Richard Sharpe. London: Penguin Books, 1995.

This indicates that the idea of becoming a slave to a rescuer was not entirely foreign to medieval Gaelic culture in the British Isles.

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    Very good example. It also begs the question if this was an isolated incident, or if this sort of debt was employed periodically. Also, curiosity demands: what is the amount charged when the fine is for murder? Or was it manslaughter? – Everett Steed Mar 16 '17 at 5:27
  • @EverettSteed the author does not say, but tells it rather matter-of-factly which implies to me that it was not extremely unusual. The amount of the fine is not given, but the author does add that the benefactor was very rich, implying that it was pretty high and that the murderer could not afford it on his own. – Robert Columbia Mar 16 '17 at 10:11
  • On second read, it is not clear if the offense commited was murder or manslaughter, though that might be an artifact of the translation. In any event, it seems that this was a serious offense - not jaywalking or second degree mopery. – Robert Columbia Mar 17 '17 at 3:16

According to this book, in ancient Rome a saviour was treated as a 'second father'. Unfortunately google books cuts you off when you get to the relevant bit.

The Wikipedia article about Fabius has the following quote:

Fabius rushed to his co-commander's assistance and Hannibal's forces immediately retreated. After the battle, there was some feeling that there would be conflict between Minucius and Fabius; however, the younger soldier marched his men to Fabius' encampment and is reported to have said, "My father gave me life. Today you saved my life. You are my second father. I recognize your superior abilities as a commander."

This is unsourced but lines up with what the book says. However beware the writer's trick of announcing a general rule with 'for example' as if they have hundreds of examples, when really they only have one. Even (especially) professional historians are guilty of this.

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    cognito interruptus. – T.E.D. Mar 14 '17 at 13:35
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    There's no need for dirty talk – Ne Mo Mar 14 '17 at 13:40
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    The book you reference does reveal the full text if you click on the correct button, and it gives more detail on the anecdote you pasted. However, it seems that herein the term "savior" refers to the military leader or political leader saving the army/city/state and becoming the "father" to his people, not to one person saving another person... Can we interpret the praise of Minucius toward Fabius to mean a pledge of loyalty? Or is he simply honoring him on a par with his father? He can't just create his own new chain of command within the army, for instance... – Everett Steed Mar 14 '17 at 20:25
  • If the quote on Wikipedia is accurate, it sounds like the kind of thing you described in your question – Ne Mo Mar 15 '17 at 23:16
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    @Ne Mo - Fair enough. And I appreciate the effort and time that your answer represents. Thx – Everett Steed Mar 16 '17 at 5:24

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