Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns
driven time and again off course, once he had plundered
the hallowed heights of Troy.
Many cities of men he saw and learned their minds,
many pains he suffered, heartsick on the open sea,
fighting to save his life and bring his comrades home.
But he could not save them from disaster, hard as he strove—
the recklessness of their own ways destroyed them all,
the blind fools, they devoured the cattle of the Sun
and the Sungod blotted out the day of their return.
Launch out on his story, Muse, daughter of Zeus,
start from where you will—sing for our time too.
With these words the Odyssey begins. The poet asks for inspiration from the Muse and imagines her singing through him. An ancient epic poem states at the outset, in capsule form, the subject of the work to follow, and this epic is no exception. The Odyssey announces its subject matter in a different fashion from the Iliad. Whereas Homer’s first epic treats Achilles’ rage, this one focuses on a “man of twists and turns.” It chronicles not battles, the stuff of Achilles’ brief life, but a long journey through “[m]any cities” and “many pains,” the kind of test worthy of a resourceful hero like Odysseus. The opening lines foreshadow how the epic will end—with all of Odysseus’s men dead except Odysseus himself—and provide a reason for these deaths: the recklessness and blindness of his crew, who do not realize that by slaughtering the Sun’s cattle they seal their own dooms. The opening leaves unmentioned many other temptations the Achaeans will face and says nothing of the situation in Ithaca, which consumes nearly half the epic. It treats the subject matter of the epic in an abbreviated form but captures the themes those subjects will explore. As Knox notes in the introduction to the Fagles translation, in the Odyssey, in contrast to the Iliad, the Muse is asked to choose where to begin. Giving the Muse this freedom prepares us for the more complex narrative structure of the Odyssey, which relies on flashbacks as it moves through the many settings of the hero’s ten-year journey.