The Greek Goddess of Knowledge and the Origin of Mentorship

What the Origins of the Word ‘Mentor ‘ Can Teach Us About the Meaning of Mentorship

When we talk about mentorship, it’s essential to understand what the term truly means. To do this, I like to start by exploring its etymology, or origin.

Mentorship originates from Mentor, a figure in ancient Greek literature.

Homer’s The Odyssey tells the story of Odysseus’s journey home following the Trojan War. While Odysseus is away and presumed dead by many, the goddess Athena (the goddess of intelligence) appears to his son, Telemachus. She takes the form of an old family friend, Mentor, to offer Telemachus support and guidance as he navigates the challenges during his father’s absence.

An insightful article in The Atlantic documents a conversation with classicist Gregory Nagy, highlighting the significance of this relationship and what it reveals about the purpose of mentorship. Much of what follows is drawn from that article.

From disconnect to decisive action

In the story, Athena, as Mentor, appears to Telemachus when he is misdirected, unsure, and lacking a sense of purpose or ability to address the difficulties he and his mother face during Odysseus’s absence. In the original Greek text, he’s described as “napios,” which means “disconnected.” Nagy explains that this disconnect refers to being cut off from ancestors and being intellectually, morally, and emotionally adrift.

Through Athena’s guidance, Telemachus gains a sense of purpose, leadership, confidence, and the courage to take action. He sets out on a voyage to discover the truth about Odysseus, whether he is alive or has perished. Athena, in the guise of Mentor, accompanies him on this journey.

Before Athena’s first visit to Telemachus, the gods convene to decide how to help Odysseus. Athena declares that she will visit Telemachus to give him more encouragement and to instill power [menos] in his heart. Nagy describes menos as “heroic strength,” not just any strength, but the kind of surge of power you feel when you are capable of taking decisive action.

What this can tell us about the meaning of mentorship

This ancient narrative provides profound insights into the essence of mentorship. Mentorship isn’t just about giving advice; it’s about empowering someone, instilling confidence, purpose, and the strength to overcome challenges. It’s about guiding them when they feel disconnected and helping them reconnect with their potential and purpose.

Understanding the origins of the word “mentor” enriches our appreciation of what mentorship means. It’s about more than just guidance; it’s about transformation and empowerment, much like how Athena empowered Telemachus in his quest.


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