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Thursday, May 18, 2017

Athena, Telemachus and the Origin of the Word “Mentor”

Telemachus, walking the beach now, far from others, 
washed his hands in the foaming surf and prayed to Pallas: 
“Dear god, hear me! Yesterday you came to my house, 
you told me to ship out on the misty sea and learn 
if father, gone so long, is ever coming home …

Athena came to his prayer from close at hand, 
for all the world with Mentor’s build and voice, 
and she urged him on with winging words: “Telemachus, 
you’ll lack neither courage nor sense from this day on…”
"Telemacheia" Leslie Peterson Sapp 16"x20" Collage painting on panel.
And so Athena, daughter of Zeus, assured him. 
No lingering now—he heard the goddess’ voice— 
but back he went to his house with aching heart 

I love the way the gods appear in mortal form throughout The Odyssey. Sometimes it is Athena, sometimes Hermes, sometimes they appear as strangers, sometimes as people known to the character in question. There is a common theme in each appearance; the character meets a person who acts as a guide or helper. After this guide or helper leaves, the character realizes they have not been talking to a mortal person, but a god in disguise. The cloaked gods are described as having a numinous quality, or being beautiful, or glittering, or youthful. In this piece I attempt to express the simultaneous presence of mortal and divine with the figure of Mentor and the face of Athena in the sea and sky. 
"Telemachus knelt where the grey water broke on the sand" W. Heath Robinson

It is not my intention to tell you the entire plot of The Odyssey here. If you want a little background you can always visit cliffnotes.com (yes, cliff notes!) to get the context of the plot. What I want to show you is why I am inspired by this scene, and also to show you other artists' versions.

At this point in the poem, Athena has decided to go to Ithaca and advise Odysseus’ youthful son Telemachus. I am touched by Telemachus, who has grown up without a father, and longs to find him.

"Athena and Telemachus" lithograph by Marc Chagall, 1975
Prince Telemachus, 
sitting among the suitors, heart obsessed with grief. 
He could almost see his magnificent father, here … 
in the mind’s eye—if only he might drop from the clouds 
and drive these suitors all in a rout throughout the halls 
and regain his pride of place and rule his own domains! 
Daydreaming so as he sat among the suitors
Telemachus and King Nestor. Apulian krater. Mid-4th century BC. 

Athena persuades Telemachus, recently come of age, to go on a journey in search of news of his father.
Telemachus is gripped with self doubt. So, he goes down to the beach to pray. He is approached by the form of Mentor, a friend of his father.
Telemachus’ courage and conviction are revived. We all need encouragement and guidance. Sometimes we turn to those in our lives, and sometimes we turn to a spiritual practice. And sometimes it feels as though the divine universe has sent us someone to help us on our way… like a mentor. 

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