The Odyssey and the model of mentorship

I have been writing a section of my thesis on social movement leadership and how — with the advent of social media — had transformed into networked movements, essentially rendering traditional movement leadership somehow obsolete. It is very interesting, but in the spirit of WIP I will try not to spare you more details at this moment.

However, I am reminded of this interesting article in The Atlantic, on The Odyssey and the model of leadership and mentorship. I must admit that as much as I have been reading widely, I had never really picked up The Odyssey and read it cover to cover. I figured I should head to the bookstore this weekend and pick up this translation by Emily Wilson.

Anyway, back to the article.

Telemachus, and Athena as Mentor

In The Odyssey, a mentor is described as someone who instills a heroic mentality in somebody. That was what Athena, the Goddess of Intelligence, does to Telemachus. By appearing in the form of a family friend called Mentor, Athena helped the young man to fend off destructive men from taking over his home and seduce his mother by making Telemachus realise his hidden abilities and ideas — in short, connecting minds and initiating transfer of thought.

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 recharging of the batteries.

The word mentor comes from the Greek word menos, which essentially means heroic strength. But it is not just any strength of any kind, it specifically refers to mental strength, “the kind of surge of power you feel in being able to put things into action.” If menos means mental strength, then mentor stands for someone who gives mental strength to someone else.

A mentor would often appear to someone in the state of napios — which, according to classicists, means “inarticulate”. Rather, in the case of Telemachus, it means “disconnected”. Telemachus was disconnected from his ideals of heroic ancestors, disconnected intellectually, morally, and emotionally.

One thing that stands out towards the end of the article is that when it was mentioned that in order for mentoring to work, the person to be mentored first and foremost must have a clear capacity for morality.

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.

“Without good intentions, there cannot be mentorship.”

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