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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, 2017 at 10:48
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    Gillian's Island wasn't a documentary? WOOKIES AREN'T REAL?!
    – Schwern
    Mar 16, 2017 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? Mar 17, 2017 at 4:22
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    @EverettSteed I'm kidding.
    – Schwern
    Mar 17, 2017 at 4:23
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    Why do you doubt the existing narrative? "Wikipedia defines the "life debt" as a purely "literary phenomenon"
    – MCW
    Dec 6, 2021 at 11:38

2 Answers 2

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Medieval Gaels of Ireland

In Adomnán of Iona's Life of St. Columba (Book 2, Chapter 39), the author speaks of a man from Derry, Ireland 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.

In response to a comment by Stephan Matthiesen, this is a hagiographic source and it is certainly possible that it contains a "pious fraud". What I do note is that there is nothing miraculous about a life debt, and generally even dishonest hagiographic stories aim for plausibility rather than including cultural elements that a contemporary reader would immediately identify as phony. It is, therefore, likely that the passage above references an authentic Gaelic cultural tradition even if the incident itself is fictional or has been fictionalized for spiritual emphasis.

In response to a comment by Everett Steed, Adomnán does not state whether the crime was closer to present-day murder (homicide committed with malice prepense or in "cold blood") or manslaughter (homicide committed with some level of intentional or reckless behavior not amounting to malice prepense). The amount of the fine is not given, but the author does add that the benefactor was very rich, implying that the fine was sufficiently high for the offender to struggle to pay it on his own. This tells us that the crime was most likely considered a serious one rather than a petty offense.

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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? Mar 16, 2017 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, 2017 at 10:11
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    But (serious question, I really don't know) could that quote not also be a literary tradition, this time from the 6th century? After all, there were various other stories about Columba like the monster in the river Ness (not Loch Ness, even though some modern writers take it as proof of the famous monster) which probably was not true, but the kind of thing that Saints were supposed to do (subduing monsters was a common job for saints). Could this story of Libran serve a similar purpose and just illustrates something religious?
    – uUnwY
    Dec 7, 2021 at 0:04
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    @StephanMatthiesen It's certainly possible, this is a hagiographic source. What I do note is that there is nothing miraculous about a life debt, and generally even dishonest hagiographic stories aim for plausibility.
    – Robert Columbia
    Dec 7, 2021 at 3:11
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    Thanks, that's a good point; if the story has no obvious religious or hagiographic message that could certainly be a sign that it's based on a real practice and sounded credible to contemporaries.
    – uUnwY
    Dec 7, 2021 at 8:18
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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, 2017 at 13:35
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    There's no need for dirty talk
    – Ne Mo
    Mar 14, 2017 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... Mar 14, 2017 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, 2017 at 23:16
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    @Ne Mo - Fair enough. And I appreciate the effort and time that your answer represents. Thx Mar 16, 2017 at 5:24

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