Mentor—the same word in English, Dutch, and more than a dozen other languages—is easily defined. In actual use, however, it is a slightly fraught term. Mentoring implies disparity—in age, in experience, almost certainly in power. To have, or to be, a mentor requires a degree of consensus between mentor and mentee, but this is usually unspoken, and there are no real rules or rituals around the connection.
Some institutions have attempted to formalize mentoring. At the school where I teach, for example, each new teacher is assigned a ‘mentor’ who offers informal guidance and helps the newcomer learn the culture of the place. The connections that form from these arrangements are often collegial and warm—but are they truly mentorships? I think not. Particularly in the arts—I’m thinking primarily of writers here—authentic mentorship is not bestowed by institutions. Perhaps it is, at its root, anti-institutional, the organic symbiosis of two individuals’ idiosyncratic needs.
And it is temporary. To be someone’s mentor is a role, not a permanent appointment. We see this even in the story of the original Mentor, in Homer’s Odyssey. Sailing off to the Trojan War, Odysseus left Mentor in charge of his house; twenty years later, the place is overrun by Penelope’s suitors. Mentor speaks up for Telemachus’s plan to set out in search of Odysseus, but the suitors shout him down. He’s of no practical help—until Athena takes on his appearance.
Once she does, the plot starts moving. In ‘the voice and guise of Mentor’, she promises Telemachus she will help him get a ship and crew: ‘You will achieve the journey that you seek,/since I will go with you, just like a father’ (in Emily Wilson’s translation, 2.268, 285-6). She recruits a crew, borrows a ship, casts a sleeping spell on the suitors, and hustles Telemachus to the ship and out to sea.
And then she leaves him! In a showy way; after delivering him to his first host, Odysseus’s old Trojan War companion Nestor, she transforms into a bird and flies away, so that it’s obvious to everyone that Telemachus has been companioned by a god. Still, she’s gone. So much for going with him ‘just like a father’! Like his real father, she’s left him before he’s ready for her to go.
The man called Mentor is no one’s mentor: Athena is. She comes in many guises, and she keeps showing up. She watches over Odysseus, sending him fair winds on his long journey home. She appears at crucial moments—as a king, a shepherd, a young girl—to point one of the heroes in the right direction, to get them moving.
As in other myths, her supernatural transformations reflect the magical changes that are possible in the lives of ordinary humans. Rather than a permanent role, ‘Mentor’ may be a sudden infusion of the mentoring spirit into an ordinary person. Perhaps this is even truer for writers, who are most fully themselves when they are alone (like the ancient goddesses and gods, whom mortals cannot safely behold?), but who somehow keep finding ways to guide one another.
Our true mentors may not even wear the guise of writers. A grandmother may assign us a quest; a friend might give us a magical object; a conversation with a stranger can point us in the direction we need to go. Only rarely will our mentors accompany us far on the journey. Sometimes what they have said to us becomes an inner voice that we can hear long after they have gone.
And some leave us merely a sentence or two, delivered at the right time, remembered forever. Before Athena leaves Telemachus, he asks her, in her Mentor disguise, how to approach Nestor for help. He is too young, he says, untutored in speaking to kings. Looking ‘straight into his eyes’, she responds (3.24-28):
You will work out what to do,
through your own wits and with divine assistance.
The gods have blessed you in your life so far. AQ