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.

  • Often the two characters are strangers when the lifesaving 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 then may include a role-reversal scenario that absolves the subservient person from further responsibility

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

What is the determining cultural factor that governs which person becomes indebted, subservient or responsible?

(Wikipedia defines the "life debt" as a purely "literary phenomenon" - but can you think of any real-world cultures that are known to have this tradition?)


closed as off-topic by JDługosz, AndreiROM, TrEs-2b, Brythan, Bookeater Jul 24 '16 at 7:06

This question appears to be off-topic. The users who voted to close gave this specific reason:

  • "This question does not appear to be about worldbuilding, within the scope defined in the help center." – JDługosz, AndreiROM, TrEs-2b, Brythan, Bookeater
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  • $\begingroup$ Isn't that history question? $\endgroup$ – MolbOrg Jul 24 '16 at 2:36
  • $\begingroup$ Suggest this on the sci-fi&fantasy SE. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Jul 24 '16 at 3:21
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    $\begingroup$ None, I don't think, with the possible exception of the Japanese, and that's a mere guess. Humans are selfish. Giving themselves away in servitude simply doesn't jive very well with anyone who was free to begin with. Even if society somehow embraced this rule there would always be individuals who would reject it, maybe even going to extreme lengths (killing their saviors) to avoid becoming indebted to that degree. Furthermore, there are not too many circumstances under which people save each other's lives, so there wouldn't be much of an opportunity for this tradition to develop. $\endgroup$ – AndreiROM Jul 24 '16 at 3:39
  • $\begingroup$ @AndreiROM I would be not so sure about that. Not clear which kinda obligation OP talks about, I mean how obligate are those obligation. Saving live could be strong relation bond, but depends on situation, and not necessary in a way : I own your live now. $\endgroup$ – MolbOrg Jul 24 '16 at 6:27
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    $\begingroup$ @AndreiROM: If you believe in the supernatural, selfishness may lead to very different decisions. For example, from a selfish point of view, a suicide attack is the most stupid thing you can imagine. Unless you believe in an afterlife where you get rewarded for it. So if you believe that ignoring that "life debt" will fare badly for you (be it in afterlife, or be it in your future fate on earth), the selfish thing is to not ignore it. $\endgroup$ – celtschk Jul 24 '16 at 9:20