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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'. Chiastic structures that involve more components are sometimes called "ring structures", "ring compositions", or, in cases of very ambitious chiasmus, "onion-ring compositions". These may be regarded as chiasmus scaled up from words and clauses to larger segments of text.
These often symmetrical patterns are commonly found in ancient literature such as the epic poetry of the Iliad and the Odyssey. Classicist Bruno Gentili describes this technique as "the cyclical, circular, or 'ring' pattern (ring composition). Here the idea that introduced a compositional section is repeated at its conclusion, so that the whole passage is framed by material of identical content". Meanwhile, in classical prose, scholars often find chiastic narrative techniques in the Histories of Herodotus:
"Herodotus frequently uses ring composition or 'epic regression' as a way of supplying background information for something discussed in the narrative. First an event is mentioned briefly, then its precedents are reviewed in reverse chronological order as far back as necessary; at that point the narrative reverses itself and moves forward in chronological order until the event in the main narrative line is reached again."
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.
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'.
Oral literature is especially rich in chiastic structure, possibly as an aid to memorization and oral performance. In his study of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, Cedric Whitman, for instance, finds chiastic patterns "of the most amazing virtuosity" that simultaneously performed both aesthetic and mnemonic functions, permitting the oral poet easily to recall the basic structure of the composition during performances. Steve Reece has demonstrated several ambitious ring compositions in Homer's Odyssey and compared their aesthetic and mnemonic functions with examples of demonstrably oral Serbo-Croatian epic. 
Use in Hebrew Bible
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.
Gordon Wenham has analyzed the Genesis Flood narrative and believes that it is essentially an elaborate chiasm. Based on the earlier study of grammatical structure by F. I. Andersen, Wenham illustrated a chiastic structure as displayed in the following two tables.
|A: Noah and his sons (Gen 6:10)
A: Noah and his sons (9:18,19a)
Within this overall structure, there is a numerical mini-chiasm of 7s, 40s, and 150s:
|α: Seven days waiting to enter Ark (7:4)
α': Second seven days waiting for dove (8:12)
Use in New Testament
Form critic, Nils Lund, acknowledged Jewish and classical patterns of writing in the New Testament, including the use of chiastic structures throughout.
The writer of the book of Ephesians uses a chiastic structure to bracket the entire book.
- A Grace to you
- B and peace… (Eph 1:2)
- Bʹ Peace be to the whole community… (Eph. 6:23)
- Aʹ Grace be with all. (Eph. 6:24).
Use in Book of Mormon
8 And under this head ye are made free, and there is no other head whereby ye can be made free.
A There is no other name given whereby salvation cometh;
B therefore, I would that ye should take upon you the name of Christ,
C all you that have entered into the covenant with God
D that ye should be obedient unto the end of your lives.
9 D And it shall come to pass that whosoever doeth this
C shall be found at the right hand of God,
B for he shall know the name by which he is called;
A for he shall be called by the name of Christ.
Use in the Quran
While there are many examples of chiastic structure in the Quran, perhaps the most well known is in the 'Verse of the Throne' or 'Ayat al-Kursi'. The verse contains 9 sentences which exhibit chiasmus, but perhaps more interesting is that it is found in the longest chapter of the Quran, Al-Baqara, which itself contains a fractal chiastic structure in its 286 verses, i.e. where each (outer) chiasm is composed of (inner) chiastic structures reflected in some sense in the analogue outer chiasm. One such analysis of the chapter is shown below (from; alternate and/or more detail analyses can be found in,).
|A: Belief (1-20)
B: God's creation and knowledge (21-39)
C: Early prophets and books (40-103)
D: Trials (104-152)
D': Trials (153-177)
C': Early prophets and books (178-253)
B': God's creation and knowledge (254-284)
A': Belief (285-286)
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. 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. 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:
- Grendel approaching
- Grendel rejoicing
- Grendel devouring Handscioh
- B: Grendel's wish to flee ("fingers cracked")
- C: Uproar in hall; Danes stricken with terror
- HEOROT IN DANGER OF FALLING
- C': Uproar in hall; Danes stricken with terror
- C: Uproar in hall; Danes stricken with terror
- B': "Joints burst"; Grendel forced to flee
- Grendel slinking back toward fens
- Beowulf rejoicing
- Beowulf left with Grendel's arm
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
- 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
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):141
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