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The History Behind Gargoyles

Some believe that gargoyles - sometimes called grotesques - are inspired by the skeletal remains of prehistoric dinosaurs and other fossils.A Gargoyle is a grotesquely carved human or animal figure found on an architectural structure, originally designed to serve as a spout to throw rainwater clear of a building. They later became strictly ornamental and assumed many forms.

The word gargoyle comes from the Old French word Gargouille meaning 'throat' and Latin gurgulio meaning 'gullet'. This word is used to describe the sound that is produced when water passes through the throat and mixes with air (origin of the word gargle). This word was originally used in reference to the drains atop cathedrals which were later carved into the form of beasts or animals.

Animal gargoyles
Human gargoyles
Dragons gargoyles
Protectors from Evil

Animal gargoyles

Animal gargoyles were depicted in varying degrees of fidelity to nature. Entire animals were likely to be posed as if holding by its claws onto the building. They seem to stretch as if trying to throw their water as far as possible from the building. Motives were not only animals the stone mason knew by sight, but also exotic animals like for example lions and monkeys, and fantastic animals like the dragon. Their knowledge about those animals they received from the so called 'Bestiaries' like the 'Physiologus', or from travelling menageries. Bestiaries were illustrated books of animal lore, which described the habits of animals, both fantastical and real, and gave them a moral meaning, equalizing their features and behaviour with a Christian way of live.

The basis for those collections were laid (as in the case of the Physiologus) in the second and third centuries, in the twelfth and thirteenth century they had reached the highest state of popularity . The popularity of the Bestiaries coincided chronologically and geographically with that of the gargoyles. The symbolism given to animals in those Bestiaries were also attached to the gargoyle animals. So certain animals were used more frequently than others for having special positive or negative meanings. Dogs and lions were most frequently used.

Dogs were always known for the loyalty to their master, further they were usually watchdogs. In the Bestiaries they were described as being wise, and had high ability to reason. So they symbolized the priest who cares for his congregation and drives away the devil. But they were not only vehicles for positive meanings: they could also be intended - as well as the wolf - to frighten.

Lions and leonine beasts - "Kings of Beasts" and the most often depicted animals in medieval art - were in ancient times used as a symbol for Sumerian, Assyrian and Persian kings, later this tradition was continued in representing Christ, the king of the tribe of Judah. The lion was said to erase its tracks with its tail, which was either equated to Christ's ability to elude the devil or to the image of the Saviour living unrecognized on earth. Further the lioness gave birth to dead cubs, which were resurrected three days later by their father. When a lion was ill, the only certain cure for him was to kill and eat a monkey, which was a symbol of the evil forces. This was taken as a further symbol for the overcome of the evil by the good. It was also said never to close his eyes even if asleep, being an emblem of vigilance. So it was placed on tombs and beside the entryways to churches. Besides lion heads were used as door knockers. However it has been said that, if shown supporting the pillars of a door, the lion used to be evil, as well as if it was a holding a lamb or was a bicorporate lion of pagan or at least pre-Christian origin. In any case, the lion was predominantly associated with vigilant, valiant, regal, and powerful behaviour. This changed in the later Middle Ages, when the seven deadly sins were associated with animals - the lion became the symbol of pride.

Other animals with a symbolic meaning were the ram, equated to the priests leading their flock, further the fox - an animal of deceit, cunning, craftiness, which sometimes also symbolized death. The goat was said to be omniscient, but male goats were also said to be chronically lustful. Monkeys were generally evil, or a symbol for the fall of mankind. Birds, with their aerial habitat a natural choice for gargoyles, have a unclear meaning, if there is one. As it can be seen with the examples, animals (and other symbolic objects) had a complex meaning, which, in addition, changed over the centuries. For the explanation of their meaning it would be useful to date the gargoyles, but as shown above, this is difficult, if not impossible.

Human gargoyles

Human gargoyles are often bizarre and laughable. Their imperfect physical characteristics are probably connected with the medieval belief of physical ugliness and illness being caused by demons or evil. The public expression of feelings, as seen with many gargoyles, carried similar connotations. It has been suggested that their expressions may not have been intended to frighten, but that they are frightened by what they observe. Mouth pullers may refer to the sin of gluttony. They may also depict English traditions: competitions in face-pulling were common in northern England up to recent times. A protruding tongue may refer to Satan, who was often depicted sticking out his tongue. But it could as well refer to traitors, heretics, and blasphemers. It is also possible - for it is a symbol of refusal - that it should keep evil away. If the water issues from an object (either a thing or an animal) held by the human shape, it could be related to Christian iconography, as for example Jonah and the whale, or Samson. One of the most often depicted motives for human shape gargoyles is the Green Man.

In medieval times there was a high acceptance of seemingly impossible animals. So it is not surprising to find a lot of fantasy creatures on churches and cathedrals, most of them composed of different known beings reassembling their symbolic meanings. Many hybrid (composite) gargoyles belong to unknown species. They combine either parts of different animals or animals and humans.

Dragon Gargoyles

Dragons seem to be the fantasy creatures most often depicted. They usually symbolize the Devil or his demons. Already in Greek and Roman times they were menacing and destructive. The dragon as an evil being is also described in the Bible. He was compared to the Devil because the Devil's strength was also said to be in the tail. There is a high variety in their appearance, but they usually had a pair of wings which are membranous, some legs, a long reptilian tail, a long snout with visible teeth, and a fierce expression. The great diversity in depictions of demonic creatures can be explained by the belief that evil is more varied than beauty, as well as with the ability of the Devil to transform himself.

La Gargouille, was a legendary dragon that lived in the River Seine, which in the 7th Century was ravaging the town and people of Rouen. It was slain by St Romanus, the Archbishop of Rouen. After the dragon was slain its body was set ablaze, its body was consumed by fire but the head and neck survived and was mounted on a building.


From Greek khimaira, 'she-goat') Was a fabulous monster in Greek mythology. According to Homer it has a lion's head, a goat's body, and a dragon's tail. It was born in Lycia and was slain by Bellerophon.

Gargoyles combining several animals are also called chimeras. In Greek mythology a chimera is an imaginary creature that breathes fire, has a lion's head, a goat's body and a snakes tail, but the term is often used to name animal-animal mixtures. When being depicted in medieval times, they are generally viewed as sexual warnings, and warnings about the deception in physical appearances that comes with underestimating the devil. The origin of the meaning of these creatures can only be explained in some cases. Some may be the result of confusions with actual, but exotic animals, as for example the unicorn can be traced back to be a rhinoceros, as it is said in the Bestiaries, that in ancient Greece it was called so.

Protectors from Evil

There are many theories has to how and why medieval architects and stone carvers developed gargoyles. It is believed that they were used to ward of evil and to act as guardians of the church to keep the terrible spirits of evil away and were inspired from a passage written in the bible. Adrienne Mayor believes they were inspired by the skeletal remains and bones of dinosaurs, found by Greek and Roman paleontologists. Many gargoyles are similar to the legends and figures of the ancients Celts, such as the Green Man or Jack of the Green ... the god of tree worship. The Pagan artists who carved these were inspired by their culture and were the last vestiges of paganism from an age when god would be heard in trees and river plains. Or are they representations of deep rooted elements within human nature and expressions of man's subconscious fears or attempts to define or embody evils of the world into manageable elements.

Whatever their true origins these awesome visual images have been with man for hundreds of years and they still seem to catch and inspire the imagination of modern society. Maybe they do, indeed, have a spirit of their own!


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