The Cultural Roots of Little Witch Academia Part 2: Rods are Swords and Spirals Save the World

spoilers for Little Witch Academia below.

Welcome back to the cultural origins of Little Witch Academia where last time we looked at the series’ primary setting. Logically, the next step would be to look at the cast, starting with our main character, Akko Akatsuki.

Well okay, we won’t really be looking at Akko specifically because she doesn’t have much in terms of direct cultural influence, instead acting more as an audience proxy to learn about the world of magic at the same speed we do. With that being said, there are still a lot of interesting cultural references surrounding Akko, like her wand, the Shiny Rod.

This ornate item originally belonged to Akko’s personal hero, Shiny Chariot and can transform into a number of different forms thanks to light based magic. Does this relate to real life mythology? Would I be talking about it if it wasn’t? As it turns out, the rod’s true name is the Claíomh Solais, which is also the name of a famous item of Gaelic folklore. While the name itself is more accurately translated as “Shining Sword”, the naming convention is more than a little similar and the motif of a light based weapon is entirely present since the sword’s blade is entirely composed of it. That’s right, a sword made of light, which means we’re dealing with something that inspired not just Little Witch Academia, but a plethora of other humongously popular stories.

This is another series that likely took inspiration from the Claíomh Solais. Probably not something you’d recognize or anything.

Now, of course I wouldn’t be dedicating so much time to covering this item if it only had such a shallow connection to the show but the rod’s roots to the sword thankfully run much deeper than that. The Claíomh Solais has a ton of legends surrounding it, but almost all of them have a few elements in common. The most frequently recurring tropes seem to be the hero of the tale finding the sword in a forest guarded by some sort of magical creature with their companions, who are often women. The creature can usually only be felled by the Claíomh Solais itself and the success of the hero’s quest is often thanks to the assistance of another female character.

If you’re a Little Witch Academia fan then that probably seemed like a huge dump of references, but in case you aren’t, let’s go over everything. The most obvious connection is the abundance of female companions.

All together there are 6 witches who assist Akko throughout the series and of course the other female character that ultimately makes the big difference is present as well, although there are two possible candidates for that position.

The first is Professor Ursula Callistis, a.k.a. Shiny Chariot, who inspires and later directly trains Akko to learn magic and in the final episode she supplies Akko with the last bit of magic power she needs to stop a major catastrophe that marks the end of her quest.

The second possible contender is another Luna Nova teacher, Professor Woodward. This character is implied to be the creator of the Claíomh Solais and is responsible for putting Akko through the trials that convinced her to seek out its true potential, so she could be considered as the catalyst for the entire story. Additionally, her plant-themed design and antlers, as well as the fact that she can turn into a tree all tie in to the fact that the Claíomh Solais is traditionally said to be found in a forest.

Speaking of which, the Shiny Rod is indeed retrieved from a forest, just like in the original Gaelic myth. Well okay, that’s where it’s found in the TV series. In the original short film, the rod is hidden in a dungeon under the academy, which is a deviation from the cultural roots, but both versions include the magic beast that acts as a guard and can only be defeated by the MacGuffin it protects (a dragon in the film and a cockatrice in the series) so the settings still mostly match.

These are already some pretty deep cultural connections, but would you believe me if I told you the roots of the Shiny Rod run even deeper? Indeed, we haven’t even gotten to the most interesting inspiration behind the item.

Remember earlier when I mentioned Akko’s task of finding the Shiny Rod’s ultimate power? Well that power turns out to be the power to break the seal to the Grand Triskelion, which is magic powerful enough to change the entire world at the user’s will. But what is a triskelion and what makes it so interesting?

Well this is a triskelion and believe it or not, it’s one of the most important symbols in human history. To be more accurate, a triskelion is a spiral with three ends exhibiting rotational symmetry. The actual shape can vary widely as long as it stays within that definition, like the flag of the Isle of Man, where the spiral takes the form of three bent legs. The earliest known use of the triskelion dates back to around 4400 BC on the island of Malta in the fidget spinner-esque incarnation shown above and it spread all over the world like wildfire. If you can think of an important group in history, the odds are pretty good that they used the triskelion somehow. It was found on military equipment in ancient Greece and Rome, on coins in ancient Turkey, in Neolithic tombs in ancient Ireland, on several different engravings in Portugal and, perhaps most notably, as one of the main symbols of the Vikings.

No, it’s not a biohazard sign. But to be fair, a biohazard would have been about as terrifying as the people this represented back in the day.

And those are just some of the European examples. Japan, Korea, South Africa, Taiwan, America and many more countries all have some notable variation on the triskelion. It’s a symbol that’s been closely associated with groups known for great accomplishments, but why is it so important to Little Witch Academia? Well, because by representing the power to change the world as a triskelion, the show references the use of the triskelion in real life by groups that would have massive impacts on human society the world over. What’s especially fascinating is that the magic power of the Grand Triskelion ultimately is not what saves the day, but instead it’s the efforts of Akko and her friends. The use of the triskelion to represent the power to change the world when, in the end, the crisis that drives the narrative is solved by human effort is one of the smartest things in the franchise. Throughout the story we see Akko struggle, pushing herself to master her craft in spite of her lack of natural aptitude with magic and consistently meeting her goals with sheer persistent effort. It’s no coincidence that the ultimate power is represented by a standard symbolising human effort and accomplishment, but rather a brilliant representation of the narrative theme that the effort to improve oneself is more important than natural talent. The power to change the world isn’t some supernatural force, but the hard work of ordinary people.

We’ve finally reached the end of Little Witch Academia’s run on TV, but there is still so much to be said about it so rest assured, I’ll keep writing these articles as long as I still have things to say. Details like the ones we just went over absolutely deserve to be discussed and I don’t want to leave any stone unturned, so if you want to keep learning about the franchise’s cultural roots, you’ll find many more analyses in the near future on AniRoute.

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Will Bertazzo Lambert
Will Bertazzo Lambert has recently risen above doing nothing but watch anime all the time and has now taken up talking about it on the internet. He hopes you will listen too, since he intends to talk for a long, long time.