Though they look like stone demons, gargoyles weren’t always thought of as evil. Gargoyles pose as demonic shapes carved out of stone staring down from ancient buildings spitting rainwater and seeming to threaten frightened souls from on high.
But gargoyles served important practical structural functions and even spiritual guardians.
Good vs. Evil Gargoyles
Before we get into it, we need to talk about two very different schools of thought pertaining to gargoyles.
Gargoyles can either be presented as protectors or evil and demonic entities. Depending on what school you look at will determine what gargoyles eat.
Within most folklore, gargoyles are seen as mythological creatures that ward away evil, demons, and spirits. That is why gargoyles have very ugly appearances. The uglier they are, the better they will be at frightening away the evil spirits.
More modern interpretations of the protective gargoyles are that they physically come alive at night to fight away the evil spirits. In other words, the gargoyles become literal guardians of whatever church, building, or castle they are guarding. Are gargoyles real?
Because of how terrifying gargoyles look, some people assume that gargoyles are demonic creatures themselves. This is the second school of thought relating to the purpose of gargoyles. Certain folklore portrays them as demonic creatures or creatures with former human souls.
Gargoyles are thought to have originated early in human history with the oldest known carving in Turkey dating back 13,000 years. In medieval days they were situated on stone buildings to frighten evil spirits away from churches to protect the faithful inside.
The Catholic church also used them to convince illiterate pagans into converting by frightening them with visions of the hellish nightmares awaiting them if they refused.
Stone Statues That Gargle and Gurgle
Gargoyles get their name from the French word gargouille meaning throat or gullet. It’s where the English term gargle or gurgle comes originates.
Gargoyles got that name because they were designed to direct rainwater from rooftops to keep it from flowing down walls and eroding ancient stone structures by spitting the water away from building with their mouths.
According to legend the first gargoyle mounted on a church was actually what was left of a fire-breathing dragon subdued and slain in France by St. Romanus of Rouen in the 7th century.
Facing a massive beast with leathery wings and a long neck called a gargouille, Romanus used a crucifix to defeat the dragon who was then burned, leaving only its head and neck. Legend has it the remains were mounted on church walls to ward off to other dragons and evil spirits
Grotesque but not ‘Grotesques’
People often mix up gargoyles with their counterpart’s grotesques. Like gargoyles, grotesques are stone carved into animals, mythical creatures, or demonic-looking figures, found on ancient and sometimes modern structures.
Unlike gargoyles, grotesques are decorative and don’t function as part of a drainage system. Grotesques are also thought to be designed to remind those passing a cathedral that evil spirits are all around them. Unless, of course, they have faith and join the church.
A Holy Purpose
Gargoyles and grotesques were symbols meant to transmit a message to people who more often than not, couldn’t read. In the words of St. Peter, “Be sober and watch: because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, goeth about seeking whom he may devour.”
In the case of gargoyles, the stone images told tales of hell and suffering, unless one repents.
Gargoyles aren’t always called gargoyles. These stone monstrosities are known by other names across Europe.
Germans called gargoyles wasserspeier meaning water spewers. Wasser means water and Speier to spit.
The Dutch call them waterspuwer, or water vomiter. Spuwer translates to spew which means gargoyles are spewing water as though, well, you know. A bit of a gross moniker for something funneling rainfall off the rooftop.
Italians chose a more practical term for gargoyles calling them doccione or gronda sporgente which translates to the more practical phrase of a protruding gutter.
Spain and Portugal
On the Iberian Peninsula in Spain and Portugal gargoyles are called garganta or gargola. Another reference to the throat and the water funneling function of the gargoyle
Gargoyles Around the World
Gargoyles have spread far beyond their European roots to adorn buildings across the globe. Some are famous for their creativity and history.
Cathedrals of Quito, Ecuador
Gargoyles at Quito’s cathedrals of La Catedral and La Basilica del Voto Nacional show a lot of imagination and a nod to the nation’s proximity to the Pacific Ocean. The carvings include seabirds and dolphins.
A gargoyle griffin dominates a building at the Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta, Georgia.
Gargoyles decorate the walls around the Forbidden City in Beijing. Instead of looking down from above they are pretty close to the ground and are grotesques.
Truly Weird Gargoyles
Some gargoyles are just weird.
Washington D.C.’s National Cathedral sports a gargoyle featuring Star Wars villain Darth Vader.
Pope Francis Gargoyle
A gargoyle added to St. Peter Cathedral in Cologne, Germany depicts a smiling Pope Francis.
A Sexual Gargoyle
A gargoyle at Cologne’s city hall dating back to 1410 depicts a man performing a sexual act on himself. Why it’s there, and why that particular depiction was chosen, isn’t known.
Gargoyles the Cartoon
Gargoyles found their way into modern pop culture in the 1990s on the Walt Disney Television cartoon series Gargoyles: The Goliath Chronicles. “Stone by day, warriors by night,” gargoyles became superheroes who fought for New York City.
Guardians of the Spirit
While gargoyles may look evil, they’re not. They are works of medieval art, visions of a fanatical hell meant to be spiritual guardians who are carved from stone to save our very souls.
Learn how gargoyles are not evil demons haunting churches and medieval buildings but spiritual guardians and practical plumbing devices.
Although some gargoyles are evil that doesn’t mean they all are. Like in all things there is a good vs. bad battle going on in the gargoyle world.