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Homer's Mentor: Duties Fulfilled or Misconstrued?
The piece that follows was sent to me by Andy Roberts in
the U.K. and is reprinted with his permission. According to Andy, it was published in the History
of Education Journal in November of 1999. Andy can be contacted via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
Mentoring has and is receiving much attention within the education arena. This paper offers an historical account of the origins of the term mentor, examining the role of the character Mentor in Homers The Odyssey and Fenelons Les Adventures de Telemaque. Many authors refer the reader to The Odyssey when discussing the supposed original mentoring dyad: these authors tend to extrapolate from the premise that Homers Mentor was a protective, guiding and supportive figure who acted as a wise and trusted counsellor to Telemachus, son of King Ulysses.
Taking an oft suggested return to Homers The Odyssey shows that this is not the case. This paper argues that Mentor, in this work, was simply an old friend of King Ulysses who largely failed in his duties of keeping the Kings household intact. Focus is put onto the French writer and educationalist Fenelon, and his novel of instruction Les Adventures de
Telemaque. It is argued that within this work one finds the Mentor whose attributes, functions and behaviours have become synonymous with the modern day usage of the term mentor and the action of mentoring. Recognition of Fenelons Mentor, as opposed to Homers minor character, is called for.
* * * * * * * * *
The word mentor is of Greek origin. The Oxford English Dictionary gives mentor as:
According to Klein (1967:964), Men is one who thinks, tor is the masculine suffix, trix the feminine. Therefore, he gives mentor meaning a man who thinks, and Mentrix, a woman who thinks. This, however, is not a description that sufficiently verbalises the current uses of mentoring. Debates on the concept appear to have their root within the Oxford English Dictionary definition. Such debates have forwarded mentors as role models, as counsellors, as advisors, as teachers, as nurturers, as friends and as sponsors: Smith and Alred (1992:109) have put forward mentoring as a civilising process. Interest in the action of mentoring seems to have been initiated by Levinsons et al (1978) The Seasons of a Mans Life. Although Wynch (1986:3) reported a paucity of information on the theory of the mentoring role some eleven years ago, writings on mentors and the action of mentoring have since proliferated. Such proliferation caused Little (1990:297) to caution us that:
For an example of attenuated conceptual development, return to the word mentor. The first recorded usage - and the first time that it was anthropomorphised - was in Homers epic poem The Odyssey. Many writings (Anderson and Shannon, 1995; Bushardt et al. 1991; Carruthers, 1993; Donovan, 1990; Daloz, 1983; Field, 1993; Jarvis, 1995; Kalbfleisch & Keyton, 1995; Little, 1990; Meginnson & Clutterbuck, 1995; Monaghan, 1995; Murray, 1991; Parsloe, 1995; Shea, 1992; Smith and Alred, 1993;
Stammers, 1992; Tickle, 1993) on the terms mentor and mentoring will invariably involve the reader being taken back to Homers epic poem about the adventures of Odysseus, King of Ithaca, during his return from the Trojan war and the drama of his homecoming (Rieu.1946:11. It is this translation of The Odyssey quoted throughout this paper). The above mentionend authors tend to extrapolate from the premise that Homers Mentor was a wise and trusted figure who displayed, towards Odysseuss son Telemachus, the admirable qualities of counsellor, teacher, nurturer, protector, advisor and role model. Anderson and Shannon (1995:25) state that:
Carruthers (1993:9) gives a further dimension, that:
Little (1990: 298) expands this theme stating that:
Smith and Alred (1993:103) claim that Mentor is essentially a stand-in for Odysseus, and assert that he must personify the kingly quality of wisdom. Anderson and Shannon (1995: 25-26) take the classical reference further. They give that mentoring is an intentional process, as Mentor deliberately and carefully carried out his duties towards Telemachus; and that mentoring is a nurturing process as it was Mentors duty to draw forth the full potential in Telemachus. They quote Clawson (1980) who claims that it was Mentors task to help Telemachus grow in wisdom without rebellion, and finally, they state (ibid) that mentoring is a supportive, nurturing process - as Telemachus was to respond to the advice of Mentor, in order to develop into self-sufficiency during the drama which was played out in The Odyssey.
The cliched classical image is a friendly one. But, was the original Mentor wisdom incarnate? Did he guide, counsel, advise, and enable the young Telemachus? Was a supportive, nurturing and intentional process evident within Homers writings? Did Mentor keep everything intact as instructed by Odysseus? (Rieu.1946:43). The above mentioned authors talk along these lines. But an oft suggested return to The Odyssey reveals a somewhat different picture of the character Mentor than the one so often portrayed in the mentoring literature.
Although many writers take the reader back to The Odyssey, not all of these mention that it was the goddess Pallas Athene, goddess of the strange dyad, war and wisdom, who took Mentors form so as to guide, counsel and enable both Odysseus and his son Telemachus through their journey and return home. In fact (or myth?) Mentor was only one of several forms which Pallas Athene took in the quest to help her favourite Telemachus (Rieu.1946:17). Her first appearance was that: ".....of a Taphian chieftain named Mentes." (ibid:28).
She also assumed the form of a seagull (:60), the daughter of a ships captain named Dymas (:102), a young shepherd (:208), a tall, beautiful and accomplished woman (:248), a swallow (:334), Iphthime a daughter of King Icarius (:85), a young girl carrying a pitcher (:112), a woman (:304) and Telemachus (:47), as well as the form of Mentor, on two occasions, for her purposes.
Mentor: who was he? Mentor, son of Alcimus, was by no means a major figure within The Odyssey. It is not stated, or even inferred, that he is an adviser or counsellor to Telemachus, wise, prudent or otherwise. The first mention of Mentor (:43) gives:
More of a caretakers role? The only reference to Mentor (:333) that Odysseus himself gives is:
No mention of his advising or counselling or nurturing the young Telemachus is ever given. On Mentors role of having been entrusted with the whole household and of keeping everything intact, it begets the question: why was Odysseuss household overrun and why did his wife Penelope, a model of fidelity, chastity and patience (Groliers.1995) have to resort to deception to keep her unwanted suitors at bay? As one of her old servants (:341) exclaims:
Consider Telemachus (:38):
Where was Mentor, the wise and able old man of the modern interpretation? How effective was he in carrying out his duties that had been given to him by his old friend King Odysseus? Did he keep everything intact? As Nestor admits to Telemachus (:56):
Regarding the role of Mentor as advising, counselling and protecting the Kings son, consider Telemachuss statement to Antinous (:45) that:
Where was Mentor? Where was he when Telemachus was too young to understand? Does the modern interpretation not claim that he was supposed to act as a father figure? An advisor? A wise counsellor?
It is the goddess of the flashing eyes Pallas Athene who commands the attention during The Odyssey: it is she who plays the leading, if not the heroines part in the plot, not Mentor. It was the goddess who guided, protected and enabled her favourite Telemachus, not Mentor. She tells him (:210):
She assumed Mentors form on two occasions: but Mentor, without her, was by no means successful in the duties given to and expected of him.
Consider the household overrun, the Kings wealth dissipating and the young Telemachus left too young to understand. As Telemachus explains, he is now old enough to learn from others: was Mentor, in the modern interpretation, not supposed to fulfil that role? He failed in his duty to keep everything intact, in his supposed duty of developing Telemachuss self-sufficiency. An argument is forwarded here for Mentor being an old friend of King Odysseus and nothing more. To consolidate this view, consider the statement (:68) of Nestors son, Peisistratus:
According to the modern interpretation, was Mentor not supposed to do just that? Why, then, has the word mentor become synonymous with wisdom, guidance, counselling and advising?
In 1699, Les Adventures de Telemaque was first published. Francois de Salignac de La Mothe-Fenelon (1651-1715) was a French mystic, religious writer and educator. Much of his life was devoted to the cause of education. He wrote the widely popular Traite de lEducation de Filles (1687) which was (Kunitz & Colby.1967:274):
In 1689 he was appointed tutor to Louis XIVs grandson, the Duke of Burgundy, and heir apparent to the throne. The pupil-teacher relationship was apparently a happy and successful one. In 1699, Fenelon wrote Les Adventures de Telemaque. This was his most popular book; in fact the most reprinted book in the 18th century and pedagogues of every sort found the book a god-send (Clarke.1984:202). Telemaque was an imitation of Homers classic The Odyssey: the story is a continuation of the epic poem and was written as a thinly-veiled allegorical attack upon the absolutism of Louis XIV - le Roi Soleil - and as a method of instructing the young heir in the duties of royalty.
Fenelon takes his hero Telemaque through a series of adventures which uniformly illustrate his thesis that an ideal monarch should be a man of peace, wisdom and simple ways of life (Kunitz & Colby, 1967:274).
Any comparative reading of The Odyssey and Les Adventures de Telemaque will almost immediately give rise to substantial differences between Homers Mentor and Fenelons Mentor (whose form the goddess Minerva assumed exclusively throughout the book). Consider the following quotes (translation by Riley, 1994) from Les Adventures de Telemaque:
Many examples of the wisdom, the support, the nurturing and the guidance of Fenelons Mentor may be quoted: few such examples may be found regarding Homers Mentor. Clarke (:201) tells that:
The popularity of the book Telemaque may well account, as Anderson and Shannon (1995:26) point out, for the fact that the word mentor did not seem to appear in the English language before 1750. (The Oxford English Dictionary states that the word was first used in 1750 by Chestere in Letters to Son, 8th March). Clarke (1984:202) asserts that:
It is thanks to Fenelon, and the age of enlightenment, that the modern day allusions of the word mentor were brought into the language at all. It is thanks to Fenelon that the term mentor was resurrected from circa 1000 b.c. and brought into the language circa 1750 a.d., thus filling a gap of some three millennia. It is argued here that it is Fenelons Mentor, not Homers, that should be referred to when considering the popular environmental connotations that the word mentor now implies. Any reading of The Odyssey will not find such rich references to the character Mentor that counsels, guides, nurtures, advises and enables.
It is not the aim here to simply add to the difficulties inherent in allowing definitional clarity of the term mentor and the action mentoring. Writers often strive for such clarity. These writings are mainly valid, well constructed and fluent discussions which call upon empiricism and reasoned discourse in their attempts to delineate and express the perspectives, the systems, the processes and the actions that constitute mentoring. They attempt to put mentoring into relevant context.
This discourse does, however, aim to distinguish the Homeric Mentor and the Fenelonian Mentor. Fenelon was considered a great educator: his book was the most popular of the 18th century. This discourse does aim to credit him with endowing his character Mentor with qualities that are analogous with the current use of the term. As Clarkes eloquent essay shows, The Odyssey is more concerned with the trials of Odysseus than with the education of Telemachus (1984:201). The true Mentor was created by Fenelon, not Homer, and exists in Les Adventures de Telemaque, not in The Odyssey.
Homers The Odyssey is rightly termed a classic: it is the first appearance of the word mentor. However, this should not result in the qualities of Homers Mentor being continually misconstrued, however well the intention. It is argued here that the extrapolation of the attributes of Homers Mentor into modern day mentoring is illusory. Fenelons Les Adventures de Telemaque is a masterly piece; a continuation of The Odyssey written from an educational vista. It is Fenelon, not Homer, who endows his Mentor with the qualities, abilities and attributes that have come to be incorporated into the action of modern day mentoring. With only thought and consideration, Fenelons work may well regain its rightful place within the future writings on the concepts of mentor and mentoring.
Thanks to Dr. Glenn Rikowski for support, guidance and encouragement.
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This page last updated on June 27, 2015
© Andy Roberts 2000