The Odyssey’s Millennia-Old Model of Mentorship

According to the classicist Gregory Nagy, Homer’s epic provides an early example of enlightened guidance that’s still relevant thousands of years later.

An illustration based on Homer's The Odyssey, by the painter Marc Chagall (Jose Cabezas / AFP / Getty)

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 embodied by Mentor. She lets him know how he can behave like a true prince. It’s a recharging of the batteries.

O’Donnell: Is there anything useful to note about the etymology of the word?

Nagy: At the council of the gods, Athena lays out her intent, saying that she will put menos into Telemachus. It’s a Greek word that's usually translated as “heroic strength.” But really, menos is not just strength of any kind—it is mental strength. And by that, I mean the kind of surge of power you feel in being able to put things into action. You can see the connection between menos and “mentor.” Menos is mental strength, and a mentor is someone who gives mental strength to someone else.

O’Donnell: Why does Telemachus need a mentor when Mentor shows up?

Nagy: Telemachus, the 20-year-old son of Odysseus, is a clueless, disconnected young man who doesn’t really understand what his role in society and in life might be. In the original Greek text, he’s referred to as being “napios.”

O’Donnell: And what does napios mean?

Nagy: Napios does not mean “inarticulate”—that’s what classicists used to think. Rather, napios means “disconnected.” The clueless man is the disconnected man. And then you ask, when it comes to Telemachus, disconnected from what? He is disconnected from the ancestors, and disconnected intellectually, morally, and emotionally.

O’Donnell: What do you think might have been waiting for him if Athena hadn’t intervened?

Nagy: I would say it’s made pretty clear in The Odyssey that if there hadn’t been this kind of intervention by Athena, Telemachus would have been assassinated. And even if Odysseus made a successful homecoming, it would have been bad, because his son would have been dead. So this intervention really was life-and-death. There is no uncertainty—Telemachus would be doomed without Mentor.

O’Donnell: Keeping in mind this original template for mentorship, how do you view present-day ideas about professional guidance?

Nagy: In general, the model of stories about mentors is a model of initiation that appeals to the inherent nobility of the person who is being initiated. That’s something that The Odyssey is putting front and center—that you have to be at least predisposed to being morally noble. If you are, then Athena can reach out and make connections for you, even if you’ve made mistakes in your life. In The Odyssey, there is a presumption of human goodness.

O’Donnell: So, under that model, is it the case that, if you’re doing work that is immoral, whatever kind of guidance you’re passing on to your younger colleagues wouldn’t count as mentorship?

Nagy: It would not. You have to have at least a clear capacity for morality. I’m not ruling out redemption—I’m saying that in the world of The Odyssey, without good intentions, there cannot be mentorship.