I would say it’s made pretty clear in The Odyssey that if there hadn’t been this kind of intervention by Athena, Telemachus would have been assassinated. And even if Odysseus made a successful homecoming, it would have been bad, because his son would have been dead. So this intervention really was life-and-death. There is no uncertainty—Telemachus would be doomed without Mentor.

In general, the model of stories about mentors is a model of initiation that appeals to the inherent nobility of the person who is being initiated. That’s something that The Odyssey is putting front and center—that you have to be at least predisposed to being morally noble. If you are, then Athena can reach out and make connections for you, even if you’ve made mistakes in your life. In The Odyssey, there is a presumption of human goodness.

You have to have at least a clear capacity for morality. I’m not ruling out redemption—I’m saying that in the world of The Odyssey, without good intentions, there cannot be mentorship.


From an interview in The Atlantic, October 2017. Cf. Gregory Nagy at Amazon.