The True Origin of the Term ‘Mentor’

Many people ask about the origin of the term mentor. One story is commonly cited in most mentoring books, articles and Internet sites, but it’s more likely that this frequently-told tale is just one author copying the details from secondary sources. Most writers don’t have the ability to translate from the original sources, and so it’s possible that a myth has become reality.

We’ve done considerable research on original sources, perused the archives of ancient libraries, and visited the sites associated with five stories that purport to claim the origin of the term. Here are the five stories. 

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In Homer’s Odyssey, Mentor is a trusted friend to whom Ulysses leaves the care of his household when he departs for the Trojan War (a ten-year battle). The goddess Athena assumes the form of Mentor and cares for Ulysses’ son, Telemachus, until the war’s conclusion. Some variations of this story state that she actually accompanies Telemachus on his journey to search for his father at the end of the war. Some variations describe Mentor as a man. This story has reached mythical proportions and is probably the most widely-cited story, but how many modern writers have actually read the Odyssey in its original Greek version?

 

 

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In 1698 François Fénelon was appointed by King Louis XIV as a tutor to the King’s grandson, the Duke of Burgundy. He provided instruction to his pupil through his didactic epic, Le Adventures de Télémaque (1699), the most popular book written in the 18th century. Fénelon uses the term “sage counselor” to describe his main character, the goddess Minerva who appears as Mentor. The book is clearly an imitation of Homer’s The Odyssey, and the lessons expounded in the book by Mentor are both more educational than Homer’s Mentor and directed towards guiding his pupil in how to become a peaceful and wise monarch. The political views that Fénelon put in the mouth of Mentor, however, offended the King’s position on these same issues. As a result Fénelon was forced to leave the employment of the King for less challenging activities and many of his accomplishments were erased from court records.

 

 

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In ancient Africa, prior to the time of the Greek and Roman invasions, when a child was born, each village shared the responsibility for raising and educating the child into the customs and traditions associated with that village. This practice continues today and has become the rallying mantra: “It takes a village to raise a child.” But a more detailed examination of this ancient practice revealed that while the child had contact with every member of the village, there was always one older child (not a family member) who would be assigned the responsibility to ask questions and listen carefully to the younger child. In Swahili (one of the oldest languages on our planet), this questioning person was called, “Habari gani menta” which, in English, means, the person who asks “What’s happening?”

 

 

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La Grotte de Niaux is a prehistoric cave located high in the Pyrenees in southern France. After walking through the silent and womb-like stillness, a visitor emerges into a large, domed space filled with ceiling paintings, estimated to have been created somewhere between 12,000 and 9,000 BC. While most of the paintings depict horses and bison, there is one theme that is repeated in many places. This painting shows a group of men taking children to what at that time was considered the edge or end of their physical world. The men exhort the children to be brave and expand their reach beyond the borders of the present world. Some believe that the origin of the term “mentor” comes from what has been loosely translated in these ancient depictions as “men” taking children on a “tour.”

 

 

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Although Odin was the chief god in the Norse mythology, at around 550 AD there was a small group of Vikings who pledged exclusive allegiance to Thor, son of Odin and god of thunder, the sky and fertility. Thor had a reputation of being particularly fierce and brutal towards his enemies, and so did his group of dedicated followers. When plundering a village or settlement, they would kill every man, woman, and child, as well as any livestock that they couldn’t eat or carry away. However, before executing their hapless victims, these fierce brutes would choose one male child to become a member of their clan. One of the older Vikings would be assigned to teach and train the boy in their ways and customs, and in this manner the child would become one of the feared “men of Thor”. The word “mentor” is believed to have originated from this bizarre relationship between the captured boy and his Viking custodian.

People and Globe
The Greeks weren’t the only ones who claim the origin of mentoring
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