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
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