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What is Mentor?

Rajeev Unnithan | 05 Dec 2020

To understand what it means we should go back to history and follow the origin story of the word Mentor. The story comes from Greek literature. Before we begin let us look at the backdrop of literature and evolution.

The modern western literature and mythology stands strong on one of the two strongest pillars as fundamental to the Western canon; the body of high culture literature, music, philosophy and works of art that is highly regarded in the west and gained the status of classics.

The Odyssey by Homer is one of the two pillars. It is presented as a sequel to Iliad; another classic and the oldest epic from Homer. These are epic Greek poems with a deep essence of life lessons.

The term Mentor was born out of Odyssey. It is the name of the advisor of Telemachus, the son of Odysseus. Mentor was the son of Alcimus and a friend of Odysseus who placed Mentor and Eumaeus (foster-brother of Odyssey) to look after his son and his palace.

The relationship between Mentor & Telemachus inspired the linguistic scholars of 18th century to adopt this name as a word in Latin, English & other languages with this meaning; someone who imparts wisdom to and shared knowledge with a less experienced person.

The first usage of this term is in a book called Les Aventures de Télémaque, by the French writer François Fénelon. All the modern application of this term can be rooted back to this book.

There have been several re-tellings of Homer's Odyssey. Fénelon's re-telling brought this term up right in the age of Enlightement. Going by the updates on Wikipedia, Fénelon was the Archbishop of Cambrai, who in 1689 became tutor to the seven-year-old Duc de Bourgogne (grandson of Louis XIV and second in line to the throne). Earlier in the past Louis XIV had banished Fénelon from Versailles and confined him to his diocese because of a religious controversy, was so angered by the book that he maintained those restrictions on Fénelon's movements even when the religious dispute was resolved.

Yet a few years later royal panegyrists were hailing the young king Louis XV as a new Telemachus and flattering his tutors as new "Mentors". Later in the century, royal tutors gave the book to their charges, and King Louis XVI (1754–93) was strongly marked by it.

The interesting observation is that Mentor was revealed as a goddess of wisdom, in disguise, at the end of Fénelon's story. The goddess of wisdom was named Minerva who accompanied Telemachus to find his father who never returned from the Trojan War. It was his educational and transformation travel that helped him find his father guided by Mentor (or Minerva) and then returned to deal with enemies at home.

What we learnt is the Mentor was a name and now in the modern world we also have words like Coach & Life Coach. Guru is the oldest word for teacher which originated from the eastern hemisphere and especially from the Indian subcontinent. These are now titles for special people who have accepted their purpose of empowering people for becoming a better student or disciple, wise professional or a business owner, a better human being or be a Mentor and uplift others who need help.

With this origin backstory of the word Mentor we now know why the word Mentor is used in the professional training & development world. With our next blog we would like to shed light on the purpose of Mentor, relationship with the Mentee and the mentoring process.

Let us know your thoughts about our first post about Mentor and feel free to comment about what your experience has been as a Mentor or Mentee. We'd be all ears for you.

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