The True Origin of the Term Mentor: Five Stories Claim Primacy

For many years while leading workshops on mentoring, participants would often ask about the origin of the term “mentor.” In addition, most texts and articles that provide an elementary understanding of mentoring typically refer to the Greek poet Homer’s The Odyssey, which scholars believe was composed near the end of the 8th century BC, as the origin of the concept of mentoring and the term mentor. But it could be that the prevalence of this tale of origin has come about because authors just copy the details from secondary sources without any verification from the original source. This seems likely because most writers don’t have the ability to translate from the original Greek poem by Homer, and so it’s possible that Homer’s mythical tale of the warrior and father, Ulysses, in the poem The Odyssey has become the predominant story.

There are, however, four other contending stories of the origin of mentoring. In order for readers to determine which story has the most credibility, I have included them here along with the much cited origin story.

1. Homer’s The Odyssey & Athena

In Homer’s Odyssey, Mentor is a trusted friend to whom Ulysses (in Greek, Odysseus) 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 (played by Franco Interlenghi in the 1952 movie version), 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 (as did the 1954 movie version where Mentor was played by Ferruccio Stagni).

Kirk_DouglasWhether Telemachus was mentored by a man or a woman, the theme that someone outside of the family provided guidance and wisdom in place of a parent, resonates with contemporary ideas about the primary format of mentoring. 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? Or even seen the 1954 movie version starring Kirk Douglas and Silvana Mangano?


2. The French King and Minerva

In 1698 François Fénelon (1651-1715) was appointed by King Louis XIV

Mosaic of Minerva by Elihu Vedder in the second floor corridor of the U.S. Library of Congress.

as a tutor to the king’s grandson, the Duke of Burgundy. Fénelon, a French Roman Catholic archbishop, theologian, poet and writer, 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, the Roman goddess of wisdom, 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. For example, the foundation lesson that Minerva passed on to to her charge on a regular basis was “Observe, reflect, question.”

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. The veracity of this tale of mentor’s origin is based on the idea that a person outside of the family provided guidance to a young person and encouraged that young person to explore in depth ideas that were challenging to contemporary viewpoints.

3. Ancient Africa & The Village

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,” made popular in today’s world by Hillary Clinton in her remarks to the 1996 Democratic National Convention in Chicago and was reflected in the title of her book. 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 hekima” which, in English, means, a wise person who asks “What’s happening?”

Unfortunately, ancient history from Africa is significantly less documented in writing than either Greek or French sources, so this story has received too little attention. Yet its veracity is founded both on the idea that it precedes Homer’s poem and the work of Fénelon, and that it recognizes the importance of and responsibility for passing on the wisdom of the elders to younger generations.

“Thousands of years ago, civilizations flourished in Africa which suffer not at all by comparison with those of other continents. In those centuries, Africans were politically free and economically independent. Their social patterns were their own and their cultures truly indigenous.”

~ Haile Selassie (1892-1975) ~

Emperor of Ethiopia

4. Cave Paintings & Tourism

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.’

5. The Vikings & the God Thor

Although Odin was the chief god in Norse mythology, at around 550 AD there was a small group of Vikings who pledged exclusive allegiance to Thor, son of Odin and the 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. (Thanks to Marnie Bosman for researching this story.)

We conclude this essay with a quote from British author and philanthropist J.K. Rowling, “There’s always room for a story that can transport people to another place.”

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