Who exactly was Mentor?: A stunning revelation and some important lessons

by Jean Rhodes

Researchers and practitioners often refer to Homer’s Odyssey, when discussing the ancient roots of mentoring. In it Odysseus appoints an old friend, Mentor, to watch over his household and son, Telemachus, in his absence during the Trojan War. By nearly all accounts Mentor was a protective, guiding and supportive figure who acted as a wise and trusted counselor to Telemachus, son of Odysseus.

This ancient myth neatly encapsulates our visions of the ideal intergenerational relationship, and has helped unify the thousands of programs and the eponymous organization, MENTOR, around common goals. A closer reading of the epic poem by Andy Roberts (1999), however, suggests that our field might have just as logically been named shepherd, seagull, ship captain’s daughter, or swallow, all of which were forms that the Greek goddess Pallas Athene (Athena) embodied to dispense wisdom to young Telemachus. Granted, her first appearance was that of “a Taphian chieftain named Mentes.” (ibid:28).

After analyzing The Odyssey through the lens of mentoring, Roberts concluded that Mentor was by no means a major figure in the epic poem and was, well, not exactly a model mentor. According to Roberts, Mentor is not portrayed as guiding Telemachus in any meaningful way— in fact there is “no mention of his advising counseling or nurturing,” in the poem. What’s more, rather than serve as protector, Mentor presided over utter havoc, allowing Odysseus’ household to sink into ruin and to be overrun with unwanted suitors who bullied Telemachus and harassed his mother. This is a far cry from the image of the wise and nurturing advisor.

Why, then, has the word mentor become synonymous with wisdom, guidance, counseling, and advising? Roberts argues that we owe Mentor’s claim to the archetypal mantle to one of the most popular books of the 17th Century, the Les aventures de Telemaque (1699), a French novel by the Fenelon, Archbishop of Cambrai and tutor to the grandson of Louis XIV.  The book seems to be an early form of Fan Fiction, as the author built from Homer’s Odyssey to the tell a new tale of the educational travels of Telemachus and his tutor, Mentor. The book also offered a scathing rebuke of the autocratic reign of Louis XIV and the excesses of his court, which accounts for both its popularity and the author’s banishment from Versailles. Although there had been no mention of the term “mentor” in the previous three centuries, it came into common usage in the decades following this book.

Despite our misguided credit, there are interesting takeaways from Athena, Mentor, and the epic poem itself. For example, Athena seemed to intuit the need to be a “credible messenger,” imparting the wisdom that Telemachus needed but might not have readily received from a goddess. Credible messengers have been used in many health interventions (Lavis, 2003) to more effectively transfer knowledge and the Arches mentoring program is a prime example of a program that has effectively leveraged this idea.

Similarly, by assuming different roles, Athena also seemed to understand that young people need different and often multiple mentors.  Although we often ask youth to designate only one mentor, recent work by Hurd and colleagues has shown that, when permitted, as many as five mentors are nominated (Hurd et al., 2018). Finally, there is Mentor’s fallibility. Although Mentor himself had his faults, no mentor is perfect and unrealistic ideals and expectations can be intimidating to everyday caring adults. Mentor may have fallen somewhat in our collective mythology, but from his fall we reap an appreciation of the complexities of this role.