Mentor and Protegé

Mentor and Protegé

from The Gods and Other Men: the myths of male attraction
Edward Maupin, Ph.D.

"The worship of God is the recognition of his gifts in other men." - Blake

In 1991 we witnessed a remarkable event. A book by a poet on the psychology of men became a best-seller, nation-wide. Robert Bly, who has been in the forefront of men's consciousness-raising with his lectures and workshops for men, has summarized his understanding in Iron John:1 In it he gives strong emphasis to the importance of relationship between older and younger males for male initiation. He argues that the traditional relationship between fathers and sons was lost in the industrial revolution, when sons no longer learned their crafts by working beside their fathers, and when older males no longer guided younger ones through rituals of initiation. All this amounts to a wound, the pain of an unmet need, because this relationship between older and younger males is of profound importance to both. He gives an arresting quote from Jungian psychologist, Robert Moore: "If you're a young man and you're not being admired by an older one, you're being hurt."

Bly himself makes use of a European folk tale, "Iron John," to explore issues of male development. There are also two well-known myth-patterns available to us. Both are Greek, and both go back to Homeric sources. One is the Zeus-Ganymede pattern. Another is Mentor-Protegé. We will see that they are related, but operate on somewhat different levels. Zeus/Ganymede is prior, in a way, since it deals with the God, Zeus, and hence with a deeper archetypal pattern. The original Mentor, in The Odyssey, was a human being, although he was "channeling" the goddess, Athena. Let's start with the human level.

Mentors and Protégés ~ the Yale study

In 1978, Daniel Levinson and his team of psychological researchers at Yale published results of their on-going developmental study of men. They found that successful men generally had three things in common: a mentor, a personal dream which they could follow, and a significant woman, not always a wife. The mentor was described as an older man, generally by 8 to 15 years, who befriends and helps the younger man in his development.

This was the first serious mention of mentorship in the psychological literature. Moreover, the subject was described in emotional, even passionate terms. Levinson compared them to love affairs: mentors and protégés met and fell in love. As in other love affairs the ending of their relationships were fraught with pain, such that the partners could not, at least for a time, feel comfortable in each others company. Mentor relationships occurred in many different vocations and for some, such as upper echelon jobs in business or government, might even be necessary to enter the field. A person could not obtain training in the necessary skills in any other way.

It is remarkable that a common relationship involving this degree of feeling should have been overlooked by the field of psychology. Levinson's study opened the door to considering the role of Eros in an important learning situation. That Eros belongs in education I have never doubted, but I have never seen it treated seriously. The few scientific studies of apprenticeship ignore it, though I'm sure many apprentice/master relations involved Eros. It is amazing to me that I can find no mention of it in George Leonard's otherwise excellent and inspiring book, Education and Ecstasy2

Erastes and Eremenos, the Greek initiatory friendship

The classical Greeks, of course, were not so ignorant of the power of such relationships. As we have seen, their model for frankly erotic friendship between males was between older (in their twenties) and younger (beardless) males. This relationship was entered into with permission of the father, and, in some regions, included a ritual kidnapping of the youth by the erastes. In the Cretan model, the two stayed together for a time during which the older male taught the youth certain skills, such as hunting. He also initiated the youth sexually, taking the active role in anal intercourse. At the end of the initiatory period the erastes gave certain ritually specified gifts including an ox and a wine cup. At the end of that period also, the sexual phase was expected to end and the relationship of Eros (er-astes, er-emenos) shifted to a more equal, less passionate friendship (filia).

It seems to me that this pattern is essentially the same as the one observed by Levinson, if we take into account differences in sexual mores and culture. The Greek and Cretan patterns were adapted to a far simpler world, in which the skills of high caste men&endash;&endash;hunting, fighting, making love&endash;&endash;were correspondingly simple. Levinson's men learned far more complex skills from their mentors, without culturally approved patterns for sexual expression, yet the emotional intensity of their bonds remains clear.

Inquiring further, we find that mentorship has its roots in Greek mythology. In fact, "Mentor" comes from Homer's Odyssey.

The Story of Mentor and Telemachus

The Odyssey is often described as the tale of Ulysses' long voyage home after the defeat of Troy. What is less often recognized is that there is a companion theme, interwoven with the first, which concerns Ulysses' son, Telemachus, and his development from helplessness to masculine strength. This theme is introduced in Book I, and its resolution, at the end, is due in part to Mentor, Ulysses' friend. It is this Mentor who gives us the word "mentor" for someone who teaches a younger person.

At the beginning, Telemachus is in a helpless position. His father has been gone for twenty years, his fate unknown. His mother is surrounded by suitors, who press her to marry one of them, and who are eating up her fortune, killing the remaining sheep for their banquets, and threatening to do violence to Telemachus when he ventures to object. At this point Athena obtains permission from her father, Zeus, to help Telemachus.

"I will go to Ithaca, to put heart into Ulysses' son Telemachus; I will embolden him to call the Achaeans in assembly, and speak out to the suitors of his mother Penelope, who persist in eating up any number of his sheep and oxen; I will also conduct him to Sparta and to Pylos, to see if he can hear anything about the return of his dear father&endash;&endash;for this will make people speak well of him."

She then flew down from the summit of Olympus to Ithaca and appeared at the gateway of Ulysses' house disguised as a visitor, Mentes. Telemachus welcomed him, not knowing her divine identity, and proceeded to pour out his sorrows. His father was dead, he thought, and he doubted sometimes whether Ulysses was his father, saying "it is a wise child that knows his own father." He was powerless against the suitors, who were ruining them.

Mentes has explained that his father was a friend of Ulysses, and proceeds to encourage Telemachus: "There is no fear of your race dying out yet, while Penelope has such a fine son as you are." He advised him to call the city elders together to make complaint against the suitors, and then to sail off in search of news of his father. Following this advice, Telemachus immediately challenged the suitors to meet him in the assembly next day, and they "marveled at the boldness of his speech."3 In his heart, Telemachus "knew that it had been the goddess"4 who had visited him.

In Book II, Athena comes to Telemachus in the form of Mentor, the friend whom Ulysses left in charge of the household. She/he tells him,

"Telemachus, if you are made of the same stuff as your father you will be neither fool nor coward henceforward, for Ulysses never broke his word nor left his work half done. If, then you take after him your voyage will not be fruitless, but unless you have the blood of Ulysses and of Penelope in your veins I see no likelihood of your succeeding. Sons are seldom as good men as their fathers; they are generally worse, not better; still, as you are not going to be either fool or coward henceforward, and are not entirely without some share of your father's wise discernment, I look with hope upon your undertaking. But mind you never make common cause with any of those foolish suitors, for their have neither sense nor virtue, and give no thought to death and to the doom that will shortly fall on one and all of them, so that they shall perish on the same day. As for your voyage, it shall not be long delayed; your father was such an old friend of mine that I will find you a ship and will come with you myself."

Mentor then arranges for both ship and crew, and Telemachus sails off at his side in the stern of the vessel.

By the time Ulysses finally returns, Telemachus has become a bold and able man who confronts the suitors and assists his father in entering the house, disguised as a beggar.

Still later (Book XXII) Athena again returns as Mentor to assist Ulysses and Telemachus in killing the remaining suitors. Once again Ulysses and Telemachus know in their hearts that this is really Athena.

Athena as Mentor

The spirit which appears to Telemachus is Athena, the daughter of Zeus. She sprung from Zeus's forehead, of all places, and she did not have a mother. Zeus created her by himself. She is his good and loyal daughter. Of all the Greek goddesses, she is most aligned with masculine values, which include intelligence and technical mastery. In another context, it was Athena who inspired the Athenians to undertake the commerce which compensated for their depleted agriculture and made them strongest among the Greek city-states. She gave them technology and commerce. She is a warrior Goddess, who leads to victory through strategy as well as strength. She is a virgin, little attracted to romance and dalliance. Function and organization are more important to her than sentiment and intimacy.

Athena's relationship with Zeus in interesting in another regard, because quite different patterns of male Eros are involved. In the next chapter the story of Zeus and Ganymede will be introduced as another pattern of male Eros. The Mentor/Athena pattern seems to be derived from Zeus, yet has its characteristic focus on the empowering of the younger man.

I have no explanation for the fact that Athena came as Mentes as well as Mentor. One was a stranger, the visiting son of a king who had been Ulysses friend. The other was the man left by Ulysses to be in charge of his house. Being a goddess, Athena clearly has the power to come in many forms. Otherwise their function is nearly identical, and it may be (though I am not a classical scholar) that the two names simply come from variant texts, from the numerous Homeric sources combined in this work. The similarity in the names seems to support this interpretation, and, at any rate, it is "mentor" which comes down in our language to denote an older man who sponsors a younger one.

It is curious that the spirit of mentorship is feminine, even though the mentor is generally male. It seems to mean that the Eros between mentors and protégés is feminine, or, in other words, that the soul or anima of both men is involved. Their femininity, their feeling, is deeply involved.

The gift of mentorship, like Athena herself, is mental, intellectual, technical. The mentor helps to develop skills and mastery in the protegé. The Odyssey does not emphasis any strongly passionate aspect to the relationship, although their companionship on board ship is clearly reassuring. There is one clue that this is a companionship of unusual intensity. This is the fact that Telemachus frequently understands that it is the goddess who has come to him. He is aware that this is no ordinary presence. It is awesome and moving, and capable of instilling great strength.

The Nature of Mentor

In this tale, the mentor is taking the place of the father. He is a friend of the father, and he has the interest a father might have in strengthening the younger man, fostering his determination and his self-esteem. At the time of the youth's greatest discouragement and self-doubt, he reminds him of his parentage and his own value.

But let's look at what Mentor/Mentes actually did: he took an interest in the boy, whom others were ridiculing; he asked what was wrong, and listened while Telemachus told him; he gave recognition to the boy, largely by acknowledging the high quality of his parents and urging him to show their strength and courage. This was a pretty effective start, and by the end of the interaction Telemachus was fired with new purpose.

Next, as Mentor, he spoke in support of Telemachus' position before the council of elders. Then he suggested a plan of action, the sea voyage to find his father, and actually organized its implementation: he hired the boat and found the seamen. Thus he acted as sponsor in the public arena, gave direction and considerable practical help. Finally, he was available to the boy as a companion and friend.

Not that much feeling is evident: though the actions are kind and supportive, they are not passionate. Neither Mentor nor Athena is "smitten" with Telemachus. It is because of friendship with the father that they take an interest in the son. Athena is interested, not because the boy is young and beautiful, but because he has possibilities: given a little help, he will go far. Whether they snuggle close together in the stern of that vessel we are not told, but they are likely to have some good, inspiring conversations.

The Role of a Mentor

The mentor, according to Levinson, is a somewhat older man whose primary role is "to be a transitional figure, one who fosters the young [individual's] development from child-in-relation to parent-adults to adult-in-peer-relation-with-other-adults." The relationship exists specifically because the younger man has not yet achieved manhood&endash;&endash;status as a recognized adult&endash;&endash;and because the mentor can bring that about.

"The mentor represents a mixture of parent and peer; he must be both and not purely either one. If he is entirely a peer, he cannot represent the advanced level toward which the younger man is striving. If he is very parental, it is difficult for both of them to overcome the generational differences and move toward the peer relationship that is the ultimate (though never fully realized) goal of the relationship."5

These relationships proceed much like love affairs, with a period of great tenderness and inspiration at the beginning, and conflict and bitterness later. At the end, the protegé, feeling more confident in his own powers, may feel stifled and overprotected by the mentor, while the mentor finds him "inexplicably touchy, unreceptive to even the best of counsel, irrationally rebellious and ungrateful."

"And so it ends. Much of its value may be realized&endash;&endash;as with love relationships generally&endash;&endash;after the termination. The conclusion of the main phase does not put an end to the meaning of the relationship. Following the separation, the younger man may take the admired qualities of the mentor more fully into himself. He may become better able to learn from himself, to listen to the voices within. His personality is enriched as he makes the mentor a more intrinsic part of himself."6

Everywhere we look, this role of the mentor can be seen as an important influence in a younger man's life. It is an essential requirement for men who are to enter the upper reaches of success. We find it in the preparation of United States Senators and other politicians. It is the entry to top level executive positions in business. Robertson Davies, in one of his novels involving an entrepreneur who frequently sponsors younger executives, jokingly calls it "corporate homosexuality." Artists and scientists who excel in their fields generally have had significant and inspiring teachers, mentors. It seems that having an older friend and guide at some critical time can be essential for developing confidence in oneself and one's ability.

In spite of such apparent importance, the mentor-protégé relationship has hardly been mentioned in psychological literature. Can this be due to a cultural aversion to acknowledging that men can care this intensely about one another? Levinson and his colleagues were virtually the first psychologists to write about mentorship. What was especially remarkable was their recognition of its passionate and emotional quality&endash;&endash;a "love relationship'&endash;&endash;clearly in the domain of Eros.

Six Mentors and Protégés ~ the Zucker study

David Zucker was one of my students at The University for Humanistic Studies in San Diego. Having just emerged, bitter and disappointed, from a mentor/protégé relationship, he was about to write the experience off as a neurotic father-projection, when I encouraged him to use it as a basis for his doctoral dissertation.7 He and his mentor had taught movement classes together during a more felicitous period in their relationship, and I had been impressed by their unity. It was as if they both were moving with the same energy. To me it had been beautiful.

Eventually Zucker interviewed six pairs of men who had been in mentor/protégé relationships, which had ended one to five years before. The interview process was sufficiently confidential that the respondents felt safe in revealing intimate and emotional details of what had taken place. He then examined the interview material for common themes, using the phenomenological method. (The "phenomenological method" is the means by which psychological researchers open themselves, however stiffly, to intuitive reason.)

Although there were differences among the six relationships, there were definite patterns which could be discerned. Each relationship had had a similar beginning, middle, and end.

The beginning was characterized by an intense meeting, much like falling in love. Generally the younger man was in a period of self-doubt and confusion, and he admired the older man seeing him as "having it all together." This aspect of the protégé's feelings is new information which the Zucker study gives us. It is the protégé's state of uncertainty which makes him receptive to the relationship. The mentor, in turn, generally saw the protégé as having talents and possibilities: he recognized him, and responded to his need. The two then embarked on a period of delight, "lost in an amazement of love and friendship and intimacy," in Aristophanes' phrase.

The middle period was characterized by creativity. Each of the pair is inspired by the relationship, and new quality appears in their work as they collaborate together. It is important to recognize that both are benefiting from the relationship in this phase: the gain is not only for one. (In fact, when the mentor can acknowledge his own need and his own benefit the situation is likely to have a more balanced outcome.) One of the pairs in Zucker's study was working in dance and movement, another pair worked in the area of scientific methodology, while three of the mentors were therapists, teaching therapeutic technique.

In the ending stage, the younger men rebelled and broke away from such close involvement. As Levinson's group also recognized, the protégés began making greater demands for equality and felt the mentor to be stifling and overprotective. They either had to break away or establish greater equality in the friendship. The ending stage was a touchy period, painful for both partners, and resembled the end of a love affair.

In spite of their clearly erotic character, none of the relationships studied by Zucker was fully sexualized. The issue was an occasion for conflict between two of the men, the mentor insisting, the protégé resisting, but most of the pairs simply did not explore the sexual dimension. This is interesting in view of the fact that several of the mentors were openly homosexual, and therefore open to male Eros in sexual form. These mentors felt that overt sexuality would have been disruptive, Perhaps this was an artifact of the small sample in this study, but it may also imply something about mentorship. Perhaps the sublimated character of Athena's interest requires a delicate hand with sexuality.

Athena in Mentor's Form

What does it mean that Athena came to her protégé, Telemachus, in Mentor's form? If we can understand this in archetypal terms, perhaps we can understand something of the power and depth of these actual relationships.

Let us say that there are two levels of meaning in any situation. One is external, the other internal: exoteric and esoteric, the profane and the sacred. The difference is not in the reality itself, but in how it is experienced. The ordinary external mode of experience gives us ordinary apparent reality. But the same situation, felt from one's core of feeling, is fraught with Meaning. This feeling-perception of Meaning is the realm of myth. This is not an allegorical intellectualization, like some English poem from the eighteenth century. Core experience allows us to sense a deeper, richer context of the thing. It is also not any random projection from the interior world of the viewer, but a particular and special territory found within.

Sometimes something happens which is out of the ordinary and the mundane. It seems deeply significant. If it is a person, they seem more intense than life. In addition to their ordinary personality, something is working through them. Nowadays, in psycho-pop culture, we speak of "channeling." Mostly, I think, people who channel other entities are merely avoiding personal responsibility for their insight, or lack of it. But sometimes a creative individual may be able to allow larger-than-life patterns to play through him.

We do not know what Mentor thought he was doing. Homer, who saw the mythical level constantly, in all these events, baldly describes the action as Athena's own doing. Telemachus "knew in his heart" that Athena had come to him. In other words, he had an experience of special Meaning beyond the merely personal in these encounters with Mentes/Mentor. Is this a parallel to the feelings Zucker's protégés had about their mentors "having it all together" in the beginning stages of those relationships?

I am sure that many of these mentor/protégé relationships are not so intense, being more pedestrian and functional. Surely not every executive or Senator becomes so involved as Zucker's respondents did with the junior men they decide to sponsor. But oftimes these meetings must be very intense, when both parties feel special significance, meaning and destiny in each other's presence. It was because Telemachus sensed that special meaning in Mentor that he could so quickly take heart and confront the suitors before the elders of Ithaca. The present-day protégé may be in awe of the special meaning and presence he feels in the mentor.

Perhaps Homer's Mentor was only conscious of helping his friend's son. Perhaps the present-day mentor is often less aware of the potency of the archetype he is carrying than is the protégé, given the degree of the latter's distress.

The Apprenticeship Contract

It seems worth repeating that most people do not invent their lives. If there is a cultural pattern for what we are doing, we proceed quite well. But if there is not, we may not notice an opportunity even when our deepest needs and longings are involved.

In the case of mentorship, such needs are clearly present. We have seen that successful men have had mentors, and that mentorship may be a fundamental need for a young man, an aching void, waiting to be filled (as Robert Bly suggests). It may well be, as the Zeus/Ganymede theme will soon imply, that the need for mentorship is equally strong from the side of the mentor.

Let's say an older and a younger male have been drawn together. They have an attraction, and it seems to be based on the mentor model. They need a name, a category which allows them to think about what they are doing. "Mentor" is fine, but "Protegé" seems a little strange to call someone. They could try "Telemachus", but it is literary and obscure. So. . .why not call the relation "Apprenticeship," the protégé "Apprentice?"

Apprenticeship is an ancient and honorable stage of learning. Crafts have been transmitted that way for thousands of years. The word enjoys currency with most people, and yet it is vague enough to leave room for definition. Many richly rewarding friendships can take place under this category.

It is useful to have the agreements clear. Given the potential intensity these relationships can have, it is useful to have practical things very clear. I think of it, roughly, as a contract:

1. The apprentice feels there is something in the mentor&endash;&endash;his knowledge, his work, his wisdom, being or consciousness&endash;&endash;from which he can learn.

2. The apprentice wants to be in the space of the mentor, in order to learn from him.

3. The apprentice is willing to assist the mentor, in various ways, in recompense for the learning. He is not there to be extra work or an additional burden. He pulls his own weight; he helps out. The situation is better for his being there. Sometimes, but not always, the apprentice may be living with the mentor, working for room and board.

4. The mentor is committed to the learning process, gives attention to it, and provides materials and experiences which further it. The Apprentice is not there simply to be exploited. He works in order to learn.

5. When the inevitable human misunderstandings come up, they can be talked out (at least in principle) and the relationship can return to its original goals.

6. The agreement is made for a specified amount of time&endash;&endash;a month or two is good&endash;&endash;after which it can be evaluated, ended or extended.

This is the agreement which has worked well for me. By calling the relationship an "apprenticeship", we give it a name, a convenient box to put it in. It defines the goal as one of learning. It establishes that the relationship is an exchange: if either person comes to feel that the exchange is not equal, the pair must process and re negotiate. It is also useful to define an time limit for the arrangement, or a series of endings which may be extended. That way the partners can enter into the relationship without feeling trapped.

In Sum

The Mentor/Protegé relationship is an important bonding between older and younger males, grounded in classical myth, yet largely ignored in contemporary canons of our society. It is erotic in the sense that strong feelings of love may be involved, and it is important for the development of many young people at certain stages.

The protégé is receptive to the relationship because, feeling confused and uncertain about himself, he is eager to identify with the mentor, whom he sees as possessing the character and skills he would like to emulate. This receptivity probably sparks an answering feeling in the mentor, who sees in the younger person qualities and possibilities which are ripe for development. His recognition of the younger person is the answering response.

The bond benefits the mentor as well as well, for in response to the younger person's respect and interest, he develops and changes; he benefits creatively, and, being loved, he is touched and affected. He may discover in mentorship a rich new source of relatedness and intimacy. It is important that the mentor be able to allow this reciprocal flow: if he is never able to relinquish the superiority of his knowledge, age, and position, he will thwart the fullest creative possibilities in the situation.

As befits the archetypal role of Athena in mentorship, the criterion for success in the relationship is creativity. Does the protégé grow and thrive? Does the mentor increase in creativity?

Based as it is on an inequality of power and status, this form of friendship is temporary. The protégé must, if the relationship is successful, realize his own power and move away from the original closeness he felt with the mentor. The breaking-away can be very painful, and woe to the mentor who focuses too much of his emotional needs on the protegé. The fruit of their bond is precisely the protégé's growing power and independence, and it is sometimes possible to restructure the friendship to accommodate to his new maturity.

Of course, mentorship is not limited to males. I studied with two women, who were very significant mentors to me, and I have had several relationships with female students who were definitely protégés. In all these situations, though, I felt constrained (is it only my hangups?) by the sex-difference, and I cannot say that we were free to open up the fullest degree of intimacy. Women often have female mentors, especially in these feminist times when power is no longer perceived as the prerogative of males. I suspect that such female relationships have their own myths, however, which would reveal different subtleties.

1 Bly, Robert. Iron John: a Book about Men. Reading, Massachusetts: Addison Wesley Publishing Company, 1990.

2 Levinson, D. J., et al. The Seasons of a Man's Life. New York: Ballantine Books, 1978

3 New York: Delacorte Press, 1968

4 Odyssey, Bk I, line 80

5 Bk I, line 215

6 Bk I, line 223

7 Bk I, line 381.

8 Bk I, line 420.

9 Bk II, line 267.

10 Bk XXII, line 210.

11 Op.cit.

12 Ibid, p. 99.

13 Ibid, p. 101.

14 Ibid, p. 101

15 Robertson Davies, Fifth Business. New York: Viking Penguin, Inc. 1976.

16 Zucker, D. "The mentor/Protegé Relationship: a Phenomenological inquiry." Unpublished Ph. D. Dissertation, University for Humanistic Studies, San Diego, 1981.