This article originally appeared on VICE France
The almost constant darkness and freezing cold of autumn and winter are hardly worth celebrating, but here I am at the home of druid Lanon in Val-d'Oise – a French department just north of Paris – to do just that. Lanon's home doubles as the meeting site for his local druid society, the Bellovaque Grove, and on this day in late September, 2018, members have gathered to celebrate the autumn equinox and show gratitude for all that has been sowed and reaped in the past year.
The Bellovaque Grove is part of the French Druidic Alliance and the wider Celtic Druid Alliance, which unites 12 druid societies from across the world. Recognised as a religion in the UK, it's not clear how many people around the world practice druidry, as there is no central organisation in charge of keeping track of all the various communities.
Lanon looks nothing like the stereotypical caricature of a druid, i.e. "a bit Gandalf-y". The 67-year-old retired telecoms worker is the leader of the Bellovaque Grove, which is made up of 12 "comrades", ages ranging from 27 to 67 years old, professions ranging from civil servant to personal trainer and salesperson. Everyone is called by the name chosen for them when they first joined the community, which all have a meaning in Breton – a Celtic language. There's Imrinn, meaning "poetic unit of measure", and Huel doch' gescoët, meaning "the strength of the woodpecker". Lanon's name means "sacred clearing" in Breton.
This gathering is very much a family affair. Lanon's wife, Gwenfea – "white fairy" – is here. She's a small, smiley but reserved blonde woman, who works in property. Their son, Kélios – "fighter" – is a 43-year-old laboratory technician, who hasn't quite graduated to full druid status yet after 15 years of training, but is instead considered to be an "ovate".
Lanon tells me that Kélios wasn't forced to join the society. "We don't try to convince anyone," he says. "My oldest son decided not to follow the tradition. It's a personal choice for everyone."
In order to become a druid, you have to have studied for at least ten years, and be over 40 years old. Sadly for Lanon, a lot of druid hopefuls who approach him have no idea what it actually involves. "Many people come to us with an absurd idea of our philosophy, wanting to do magic," he says. "It's delusional." Their life, he clarifies, is about learning, meditation, studying ancient texts and symbols through stories, legends and myths.
Some members do develop specific skills, though – for example, healing with medicinal plants, magnetism or stone manipulation. The role of a druid, Lanon says, is to help others discover what they already possess inside. "Gardeners want their plants to give the best of themselves, and druids want the same thing for their students," he explains. All this they do for free, as it goes against their beliefs to charge for their services.
Despite the driving rain, the druids here leave the comfortable warmth of Lanon's living room to head towards the nearby forest. Around a sacred oak, in a circular clearing marked out by little stones, they set up two round tables covered in white tablecloths. On one, reserved for men, are wooden bowls that contain salt, coal, water and incense – a representation of the four elements – and bread, a symbol of sharing. On the women's table there are candles and a small cauldron, symbols of the continuity of life. Some wear a saie – a long tunic made of white linen – over their clothes.
The ceremony begins with the purifying of the clearing. The druid Sira Lucna first holds the group's mascot – a wooden dragon decorated with green, purple and blue ribbons – by the head. Everyone then takes it in turn to hold the mascot as they enter into the circle and walk around it several times.
From there, each member stands in a pre-determined position. From a briefcase, Lanon, Gwenfea and Kélios take out an order of ceremony and printed prayers, and proceed to the remaining rituals: the invocation of the elements, a homage to the deceased and litanies – all this punctuated with the occasional swig of tonic from a horn.
No one seems bothered by the incessant rain or the biting cold.
Kélios has a request to make: he wants to become a fully fledged druid. One by one, he approaches each member to ask for their permission. Everyone approves, indicating this by touching his thumb with theirs. Now a druid, Kélios is also symbolically elected as the "head of the clan" for one year, and crowned with woven oak leaves.
Next, everyone places the symbols of the year passed – an acorn and a leaf – in the cauldron to set alight, symbolising the cycle of renewal. The bread is shared, and what's left is placed at the foot of the oak tree as an offering to the deceased. The group then gathers closer together, still in a circle, arms crossed, hands clasped, eyes closed, and prays for several minutes.
Lanon announces the end of the ritual. Sira Lucna picks up the mascot again, and everyone follows, walking around the circle in silent contemplation, before walking away. Everyone kisses and wishes each other well, before taking the path back to Lanon's house.
"Of course, the tradition our ancestors practised is nothing like what we do today," Lanon tells me later. Now, he says, everything is linked with the energy of nature. There is no judgment here, and all things must be respected equally – women, men, plants, animals and stones.
Scroll down to see more photos of the ceremony.