The Odyssey’s Millennia-Old Model of Mentorship

Homer’s The Odyssey chronicles Odysseus’s journey home in the years following the Trojan War. As he is making his way back, the goddess Athena appears to his son, Telemachus, in the form of an old family friend, Mentor, to offer him support and guidance in his father’s absence. Their interactions in The Odyssey represent one of the earliest antecedents of the word mentorship.

The challenges that Telemachus was facing—he needed to fend off the men trying to take over his home and seduce his mother—were quite different from the sorts of things a 21st-century professional might encounter. But Gregory Nagy, a classics professor at Harvard University, says that the bond between Telemachus and his “mentor” is still relevant. For The Atlantic’s series, “On the Shoulders of Giants,” I talked to Nagy about what the story of the original Mentor reveals about understandings of personal and professional guidance even thousands of years later. The conversation that follows has been edited for length and clarity.

B.R.J. O’Donnell: Can you tell me more about the significance of the word mentor?

Gregory Nagy: In the Greek of The Odyssey, a mentor is someone who instills a heroic mentality in somebody. That’s exactly what Athena, as the goddess of intelligence, does in her relationship with Telemachus. She intervenes in his life, which is very misdirected at the time, when he’s not sure about anything.

O’Donnell: And what does she accomplish?

Nagy: What Athena succeeds in doing as Mentor is connecting the thinking of the young man with the realities of the heroic legacy of not only his father, but all his ancestors, male and female. This relationship literally connects the mind of Athena with the mind of Telemachus—there is a real transfer of thought from one to the other, and that transference is …read more

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