Chiastic structure

Also, this article is about the literary technique. For the mathematics theory, see Ring theory

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 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"[2]. 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."[3]

Various chiastic structures are also seen in the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and the Quran.

Chiastic structures also appear in Ancient Greek sculpture. The contrapposto technique of sculpture in Ancient Greek sculpture often lead to this chiastic structure, such as in the Diadumenos of Polykleitos.


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.[4]

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'.[5]

Mnemonic device

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.[6]

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.[7]

Gordon Wenham has analyzed the Genesis Flood narrative and has shown that it is essentially an elaborate chiasm.[8] Based on the earlier study of grammatical structure by F. I. Andersen,[9] 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)
E': 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 (J or Jahwist and P or Priestly sources). The repetition may also show the literary artistry of a single author or editor, either working from one tradition or weaving together the J and P sources in chiastic fashion.

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 [10]; alternate and/or more detail analyses can be found in [11], [12], [13]).

Chiastic structure of Sura 2: The Cow
A: Belief (1-20)
Aa: Believers (1-5)
Ab: Unbelievers (6-20)

B: God’s creation and knowledge (21-39)

Ba: Evidence of God: Life and death, bringing the dead back to life (28)
Bb: God knows all (29-30, 32-33)

C: Early prophets and books (40-103)

Ca: God gave Moses the Book (43, 87)
Cb: Solomon, son of David (102)

D: Trials (104-152)

Da: Abraham tested by God (124)
Db: Abraham and Ishmael built Ka'ba (127)
Dc: Concealing testimony (140)
Dd: People of the book (Jews and Christians) say... (111, 113, 116, 118, 135)

D': Trials (153-177)

Da': Muslims will be tested (155)
Db': Pilgrimage to the Ka'ba (158)
Dc': Concealing God's signs and revelations (159, 174)
Dd': Polytheists say... (167, 170)

C': Early prophets and books (178-253)

Ca': It has been written (prescribed) for you (178, 180, 183, 216)
Cb': David, father of Solomon (251)

B': God’s creation and knowledge (254-284)

Ba': Evidence of God: Life and death, bringing the dead back to life (258-260)
Bb': God knows all (255-256,261,268,270-271,273,282-284)

A': Belief (285-286)

Aa': Believers (285)
Ab': Unbelievers (286)

Muhammad Rizvi, an undergraduate student at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, has identified chapter-wide chiastic structures in Sura al-Yasin, Sura al-Zukhruf, Sura al-Faatir, Sura al-Qalam, Sura al-Muzammil, and other chapters of the Quran [14].

Use in Book of Mormon

Chaism in 3 Nephi 5 - Covenant Promises of Jacob

A: as surely as the Lord liveth (3 Nephi 5:24)

B: gather in from the four quarters of the earth (3 Nephi 5:24)

C: restoring all the house of Jacob unto the knowledge of the covenant (3 Nephi 5:25)

C': then shall they know their Redeemer, who is Jesus Christ (3 Nephi 5:26)

B': gathered in from the four quarters of the earth unto their own land (3 Nephi 5:26)

A': as the Lord liveth (3 Nephi 5:26)

Chaism in Alma 36 - The Conversion of Alma

A: inasmuch as ye shall keep the commandments of God ye shall prosper in the land (Alma 36:1)

B: remembering the captivity of our fathers (Alma 36:2)

C: whosoever shall put their trust in God shall be supported in their trials (Alma 36:3)


I racked, even with the pains of a damned soul (Alma 36:12)

I remembered...the coming of one Jesus Christ, a Son of God, to atone for the sins of the world (Alma 36:17)

O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me (Alma 36:19)

I could remember my pains no more (Alma 36:19)


C': I have been supported under trials (Alma 36:27)

B': delivered them out of bondage and captivity (Alma 36:29)

A': inasmuch as ye shall keep the commandments of God ye shall prosper in the land (Alma 36:30)

ABC…CBA pattern


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.[15] 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.[16] 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[17]

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[18]

Paradise Lost

The overall chiastic structure of John 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)[19]:141

See also


  1. The term "palistrophe" was coined in: McEvenue, Sean E. (1971), The Narrative Style of the Priestly Writer, Rome: Biblical Institute Press, OCLC 292126.
  2. Gentili, Bruno, Poetry and Its Public in Ancient Greece: From Homer to the Fifth Century, trans. A. Thomas Cole (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988), 48
  3. Boedeker, Deborah. "Epic Heritage and Mythical Patterns in Herodotus." Published in Companion to Herodotus, ed. Egbert J. Bakker, Irene J. F. de Jong, and Hans van Wees (Brill, 2002), 104–05.
  4. "Chiasmus", Oxford Living Dictionaries, Oxford University Press, retrieved 2014-07-10
  5. Garrett 1993, p. 71
  6. Whitman, Cedric M. (1958), Homer and the Heroic Tradition, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, OCLC 310021.
  7. Shea 1986
  8. Gordon J. Wenham, "The Coherence of the Flood Narrative" Vetus Testamentum 28 (1978) 336–348.
  9. F. I. Andersen, The Sentence in Biblical Hebrew (The Hague, 1974).
  10. Abu Zakariya, "Ring Theory: the Quran’s Structural Coherence", September 21 2015,
  11. Raymond K. Farrin, "Surat al‐Baqara: A Structural Analysis", January 19 2010,
  12. Hassan uz Zaman Shamol,
  13. Muhammad Rizvi , " Symmetry in Sura al-Baqara", June 01 2018,
  14. Muhammad Rizvi, "What is TGM?" The Gold Mine, June 9, 2018,
  15. Niles 1979, pp. 924–35
  16. Niles 1979, pp. 924–25
  17. Niles 1979, pp. 925–6
  18. Niles 1979, p. 930
  19. 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

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