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 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]

A notable example in the Torah is the chiastic structure running from the middle of Exodus through the end of Leviticus. The structure begins with the covenant made between God and the Hebrew People at Mount Sinai, as described in the Torah, and ends with the admonition from God (YHWH) to the Hebrews of what will happen if they will not follow his laws, which is also a sort of covenant. The main ideas are in the middle of Leviticus, from chapter 11 through chapter 20. Those chapters deal with the holiness in the Tabernacle and the holiness of the Israelite people in general. The chiastic structure points the reader to the central idea, that of the expected holiness (set-apartness) of the Israelite people in everything they do.[citation needed] In David Dorsey's book and in his teaching, he poses that the chiastic structure provides a form of interpretive control by the authors of the various books in the Hebrew Scriptures.[citation needed]

Book of Genesis[edit]

In the Book of Genesis, chapter 4 vs 1-5 uses a chiastic structure that contrasts between the two sons of Adam, Cain and Abel.[citation needed] Their names occur in the pattern ABBAABBA(A). The Torah describes their names, their occupations, and their offerings.

Book of Daniel[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]

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.[6]

ABC…CBA pattern[edit]

The ABC…CBA chiastic structure is frequently used to emphasize the innermost concept, i.e., C, the concept that appears either twice in succession or only once, showing that the other ideas all lead up to the middle idea or concept.


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.[7] 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.[8] 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[9]

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[10]

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)[11]: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  |chapter= 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. ^ "Author Interview: How to Read the Qur'an by Carl W. Ernst", (University of North Carolina Press), 2011 
  7. ^ Niles 1979, pp. 924–35
  8. ^ Niles 1979, pp. 924–25
  9. ^ Niles 1979, pp. 925–6
  10. ^ Niles 1979, p. 930
  11. ^ 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]