When you look at the architecture of cathedrals and other Gothic-style buildings in the United States and Europe, you see these creepy, wicked-looking yet delicate stone monster carvings, called Gargoyles.
What are these gruesome things? Why do they adorn buildings? Are Gargoyles real and where do they come from?
As far as being building ornaments, yes, Gargoyles are real. But in a mythical sense, as with most things of fantasy, it’s up to each individual to decide.
Some people say yes while others say no; that it’s the modernized versions in TV and movies transmorphing the idea they exist.
The Existence of Gargoyles
From continent to continent and culture to culture, the world over, Gargoyles play an important role in society and are a symbol of the human propensity toward superstition. Their creepy, horrifying appearance yet beautiful intricate designs capture the imagination and inspire awe.
The fact that Gargoyles have been with us since ancient times is a testament to the human desire for protection from harm and wrongdoing. Its use in the Middle Ages adds a reminder of how it was a tool of fear and propaganda for the Catholic Church.
As far as Gargoyles being real, the evidence isn’t there for it in the same way as fairies or leprechauns. But, you can always believe what you wish.
Modern Gargoyles don’t always spout water or serve any drainage purpose, which gives them the name, “Grotesques.” This started in the 19th century with Notre Dame in Paris. These non-waterspout Gargoyles were part of the renovation and only serve a decorative purpose. The images found at Notre Dame have popularized and typified what many people expect Gargoyles to look like.
Recent Renovations | Modern Buildings
The renovation of the 12th century Paisley Abbey in the 1990s required Gargoyle refurbishment and chose to depict the Alien from the 1979 movie of the same name. The French Chapel of Bethlehem also went through renovations in the 90s featuring Gargoyles from modern fictionalized characters like critters from the movie Gremlins, a robot from the cartoon Grendizer and other aliens.
The Chrysler Building in NYC features Gargoyles made of stainless steel. Pittsburgh also houses many Gargoyles and Grotesques along with the Washington National Cathedral in Washington DC, where they have ones made of limestone with figures of Darth Vader from Star Wars and other crooked politicians.
Literature, Art | Culture
Gargoyles are the stuff of legend and have appeared in countless numbers of literature, movies, and other cultural displays throughout centuries. They appear in everything from Victor Hugo’s 1831 classic tale, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” to modern TV shows and cartoons, “Doctor Who” and “Futurama.”
Disney’s TV show, “Gargoyles” and their version of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” feature Gargoyles. The way they depict them is most likely the reason for the more recent belief that they animate in the middle of the night to act as guardians. The role-playing game, Dungeons, and Dragons, further modernized their mythology. In the game, they’re a race that lays eggs and blends into architectural structures.
And, of course, there have been a few claims of sightings in recent years found online through video sharing social platforms, like YouTube, Bitchute, and Vimeo. But, of course, these could merely be a trick of the camera because no one can verify it.
Gargoyles weren’t popularized in Europe until the 13th century in France. They were first placed on churches, buildings, and other structures to prevent rain damage and masonry erosion.
They look gruesome, with their devilish features spewing water from orifices in their face, like the ears, nose, and mouth.
Forms | Shapes
These stone-carved monsters take many forms like dragons, griffins, harpies, and other abstract creatures including human-bird hybrids. Other animals were also used, like dogs, wolves, eagles, and lions. Catholicism’s eventual encroachment led to removing cats with Gargoyles. This is because they symbolized witchcraft and the occult along with promoting the sin of pride.
Gargoyles can refer to anything considered “grotesque.” This means the inclusion of things like chimeras, other animal hybrids, demon-like creatures, etc. They also come in the form of humans that represented local priests, bishops, the sculpturist, the architect of the building, notable community figures, or the building’s benefactor.
One of the most popular examples of a human styled into a Gargoyle is at Scotland’s Rosslyn Church. Built by the Knights Templar in the 15th century where a knight holds a chalice believed to symbolize the Holy Grail.
The scary appearance of these stone creatures forces some people to equate Gargoyles to evil or demonic activity. Other stories relate how they are supernatural spirits with hateful intentions and sinful thoughts. But most depictions of Gargoyles represent the conquest of Christianity over paganism in some way, shape, or form.
The aesthetics of Gargoyles during the Middle Ages provided roof drainage and served a religious purpose. They reminded churchgoers about ancient dragons enmeshed with pagan symbolism under a canopy of Catholic propaganda. This practice traveled all over the Western world into places like Italy, Germany, and most notably, Scotland. Such widespread use brought these stone monsters to life.
Because literacy was not as common during the Middle Ages as it is in today’s world, these Gargoyles were messengers and reminders to converts of Satan, sin, and evil. Their presence meant that attending mass was part-and-parcel to maintain the protection of the Catholic Church and to stay in God’s good graces.
It’s interesting to note that there were many priests and religious leaders in those days who opposed using Gargoyles. They would speak against their inclusion in sacred structures like St. Bernard of Clairvaux, a leader of the Knights Templar. In the 12th century, he orated a florid yet scathing speech describing them as savage, unclean absurdities that sully architecture.
Origins | Etymology
Many legends and myths decorate the expanse of history, revealing how heroes and men fought off serpents, dragons, and other slithery monsters. The purpose for much of these stories is often a symbolic representation of religious conquest and a reminder of how the “good” of the Church will overcome all evil.
The genesis of the word “Gargoyle” derives from an old French legend about a dragon who lived along the Seine River, near Rouen. This Gargouille had a long serpent-like neck with massive wings. It would swallow ships at will and flood the town by heaving enormous amounts of fire and water.
At the height of the dragon’s reign of terror, a priest, by the name of Romanus, came to Rouen in the 7th century. He promised to rid the place of the cursed dragon forever. But he would only do this if the townspeople converted to Christianity. They agreed and once they became Christians, he defeated the troublesome monster with a condemned man and a crucifix.
They led the creature back to Rouen for death by fire but there was one problem. The head and neck remained because fire cannot vanquish fire. So, they decided to mount the head onto the church built in the priest’s name. They did this to ward off and warn any other dragons who would dare create havoc.
Ergo, Gargoyles have a direct link to paganism and Christianity, making them a tool for conversion. They were popular in a time when the Catholic Church withheld information about the Bible and the teachings of Jesus amid an illiterate population.
It was a way to instill fear and maintain the echoes of past pagan belief structures. Gargoyles served as a warning to what would happen to unbelievers if they followed the path of the devil.
French Roots | Other Translations
The presence of Gargoyles in architecture intends to ward off evil, as indicated by their name. The word “Gargoyle” shares the same root word as “gargle,” coming from the French tale of “gargouille,” meaning “throat” and “gargariser,” which translates to “gurgle.”
Other European cultures that have adopted Gargoyle legends and sculptures also have names denoting their practical function. “Water spewer” in German is “wasserspeir” and “waterspuwer” in Dutch roughly translates to “water vomiter.” In Italian, it’s called “doccione o gonda sporgente” and means “protruding gutter.”
But the Medieval Age in Europe isn’t where the phenomenon of Gargoyles began. Ancient Greece, Persia, Egypt, Babylon, Asia, Africa, and India all have such stories. Gargoyles are in masonry and architecture across ancient Roman, Greek, Egyptian and Etruscan civilizations.
These more ancient versions of Gargoyles come in the form of animals, like lions or the crocodile seen in modern-day Turkey that’s 13,000 years old. Ancient Egyptians featured their Gargoyles with hieroglyphic inscriptions and the Temple of Zeus had over 100 lion Gargoyles made of marble.
Lion-headed Gargoyles are prominent in the buildings of Pompeii too. Because lion-themed Gargoyles carried over into the beginning of the Medieval period, it is a continuation in the understanding of the lion’s association with the sun.