Origins of Youth Mentoring

The excellent Peer Resources Network in Canada recently circulated the following information on the origin of the word ‘Mentor’, which makes for interesting reading.

Here are four stories presented as the true origin of the term mentor or mentoring:

1. 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.

2. In 1698 Francis Fenelon 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 Telemaque (1699), the most popular book written in the 18th century. Fenelon 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 Fenelon put in the mouth of Mentor, however, offended the king’s position on these same issues. As a result Fenelon was forced to leave the employment of the king for less challenging activities.

3. 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. 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?”

4. 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.”