Chiastic structure

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For other uses of "ring structure", see ring structure.

Chiastic structure, or chiastic pattern, is a literary technique in narrative motifs and other textual passages. An example of chiastic structure would be two ideas, A and B, together with variants A' and B', being presented as A,B,B',A'. Alternative names[citation needed] include ring structure, because the opening and closing 'A' can be viewed as completing a circle, palistrophe,[1] or symmetric structure. It may be regarded as chiasmus scaled up from clauses to larger units of text.

These often symmetrical patterns are commonly found in ancient literature such as the epic poetry of the Odyssey and the Iliad. Various chiastic structures are also seen in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, where biblical writers used it to illustrate or highlight details of particular importance.


When read left to right, up to down, the first topic (A) is reiterated as the last, and the middle concept (B) appears twice in succession. (Also, the middle concept could appear just once.)

The term chiastic derives from the mid-17th century term chiasmus, which refers to a crosswise arrangement of concepts or words that are repeated in reverse order. Chiasmus derives from the Greek word khiasmos, a word that is khiazein, marked with the letter khi. From khi comes chi.[2]

Chi is made up of two lines crossing each other as in the shape of an X. The line that starts leftmost on top, comes down, and is rightmost on the bottom, and vice versa. If one thinks of the lines as concepts, one sees that concept A, which comes first, is also last, and concept B, which comes after A, comes before A. If one adds in more lines representing other concepts, one gets a chiastic structure with more concepts. See Proverbs 1:20-33; vs 20-21=A, v 22=B, v 23=C, vs 24-25=D, vs 26-28=E, vs 29-30=D', v 31=C', v 32=B', v 33=A' [3]

Mnemonic device[edit]

Oral literature is especially rich in chiastic structure, possibly as an aid to memorization. In his study of the Iliad and the Odyssey, Cedric Whitman, for instance, finds a chiastic structure "of the most amazing virtuosity" that simultaneously performed both aesthetic and mnemonic functions, permitting the oral poet to easily recall the basic formulae of the composition during performances.[4]

Use in Hebrew Bible[edit]

In 1986, William H. Shea proposed that the Book of Daniel is composed of a double-chiasm. He argued that the chiastic structure is emphasized by the two languages that the book is written in: Aramaic and Hebrew. The first chiasm is written in Aramaic from chapters 2-7 following an ABC...CBA pattern. The second chiasm is in Hebrew from chapters 8-12, also using the ABC...CBA pattern. However, Shea represents Daniel 9:26 as "D", a break in the center of the pattern.[5]

Gordon Wenham has analyzed the Genesis Flood narrative and has shown that it is essentially an elaborate chiasm.[6] Based on the earlier study of grammatical structure by F. I. Andersen,[7] Wenham illustrated a chiastic structure as displayed in the following two tables.

Chiastic structure of the Genesis Flood Narrative
A: Noah and his sons (Gen 6:10)
B: All life on earth (6:13:a)
C: Curse on earth (6:13:b)
D: Flood announced (6:7)
E: Ark (6:14-16)
F: All living creatures (6:17–20 )
G: Food (6:21)
H: Animals in man’s hands (7:2–3)
I: Entering the Ark (7:13–16)
J: Waters increase (7:17–20)
X: God remembers Noah (8:1)
J: Waters decrease (8:13–14)
I': Exiting the Ark (8:15–19)
H': Animals (9:2,3)
G': Food (9:3,4)
F': All living creatures (9:10a)
D': Ark (9:10b)
D’:No flood in future (9:11)
C': Blessing on earth (9:12–17)
B': All life on earth (9:16)

A: Noah and his sons (9:18,19a)

Within this overall structure, there is a numerical mini-chiasm of 7s, 40s, and 150s:

Chiasm of the numbers 7, 40, and 150
α: Seven days waiting to enter Ark (7:4)
β: Second mention of seven days waiting (7:10)
γ: 40 days (7:17)
δ: 150 days (7:24)
χ: God remembers Noah (8:1)
δ': 150 days (8:3)
γ': 40 days (8:6)
β': Seven days waiting for dove (8:10)

α': Second seven days waiting for dove (8:12)

The two mentions of the 150 days refer to the same period, and the first 40 days (7:13,17) are part of the 150 days. All this is consistent with the date in 8:4. There was no compelling reason to repeat the first 7-day figure of waiting to enter the Ark except for the corresponding two 7-day figures for the dove. The second mention of the 150 days was also because of the chiasmus. The chiastic structure explains the repetition of these figures. Before these ancient literary conventions were recognized, followers of the Documentary Hypothesis explained the repetition by hypothesizing two different authors or redactors. Instead, the repetition shows the literary artistry of a single author or editor.

Use in the Qurʾān[edit]

The themes in the Pedestal Verse and the story of Joseph are presented in a chiastic structure. Several other passages exist in a type of ring symmetry, or symmetrical structure.[8]

ABC…CBA pattern[edit]


In literary texts with a possible oral origin, such as Beowulf, chiastic or ring structures are often found on an intermediate level, that is, between the (verbal and/or grammatical) level of chiasmus and the higher level of chiastic structure such as noted in the Torah. John D. Niles provides examples of chiastic figures on all three levels.[9] He notes that for the instances of ll. 12-19, the announcement of the birth of (Danish) Beowulf, are chiastic, more or less on the verbal level, that of chiasmus.[10] Then, each of the three main fights are organized chiastically, a chiastic structure on the level of verse paragraphs and shorter passages. For instance, the simplest of these three, the fight with Grendel, is schematized as follows:

A: Preliminaries

  • Grendel approaching
  • Grendel rejoicing
  • Grendel devouring Handscioh
B: Grendel's wish to flee ("fingers cracked")
C: Uproar in hall; Danes stricken with terror
C': Uproar in hall; Danes stricken with terror
B': "Joints burst"; Grendel forced to flee

A': Aftermath

  • Grendel slinking back toward fens
  • Beowulf rejoicing
  • Beowulf left with Grendel's arm[11]

Finally, Niles provides a diagram of the highest level of chiastic structure, the organization of the poem as a whole, in an introduction, three major fights with interludes before and after the second fight (with Grendel's mother), and an epilogue. To illustrate, he analyzes Prologue and Epilogue as follows:

A: Panegyric for Scyld

B: Scyld's funeral
C: History of Danes before Hrothgar
D: Hrothgar's order to build Heorot


D': Beowulf's order to build his barrow
C': History of Geats after Beowulf ("messenger's prophecy")
B': Beowulf's funeral

A': Eulogy for Beowulf[12]

Paradise Lost[edit]

The overall chiastic structure of Milton's Paradise Lost is also of the ABC…CBA type:

A: Satan's sinful actions (Books 1-3)

B: Entry into Paradise (Book 4)
C: War in heaven (destruction) (Books 5-6)
C': Creation of the world (Books 7-8)
B': Loss of paradise (Book 9)

A': Humankind's sinful actions (Books 10-12)[13]:141

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The term "palistrophe" was coined in: McEvenue, Sean E. (1971), The Narrative Style of the Priestly Writer, Rome: Biblical Institute Press, OCLC 292126 .[page needed]
  2. ^ "US English dictionary", (Oxford University Press), retrieved 2014-07-10  |contribution= ignored (help)
  3. ^ Garrett 1993, p. 71
  4. ^ Whitman, Cedric M. (1958), Homer and the Heroic Tradition, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, OCLC 310021 .
  5. ^ Shea 1986[page needed]
  6. ^ Gordon J. Wenham, "The Coherence of the Flood Narrative" Vetus Testamentum 28 (1978) 336–348.
  7. ^ F. I. Andersen, The Sentence in Biblical Hebrew (The Hague, 1974).
  8. ^ "Author Interview: How to Read the Qur'an by Carl W. Ernst", (University of North Carolina Press), 2011 
  9. ^ Niles 1979, pp. 924–35
  10. ^ Niles 1979, pp. 924–25
  11. ^ Niles 1979, pp. 925–6
  12. ^ Niles 1979, p. 930
  13. ^ Ryken, Leland (2004). "Paradise Lost by John Milton (1608-1674)". In Kapic, Kelly M.; Gleason, Randall C. The Devoted Life: An Invitation to the Puritan Classics. Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press. pp. 138–151. ISBN 0-8308-2794-3. OCLC 55495010. 


Further reading[edit]