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.