Gothic-era Gargoyles generally resemble a demon, devil, dragon, half-human=half-animal creatures, or a caricature of real people or classes of people. Their original purpose was as a device used to shed rainwater from buildings primarily cathedrals and castles in Europe. Another purpose was to frighten off evil and protect those that it guards, such as a church’s parishioners. Unlike grotesques, gargoyles are usually part of the drainage system of a building.
The history of gargoyles dates from 1150 C.E. but they are much older than that. The word gargoyle is derived from the French word gargouillis which means gurgle. This may have originated from the Greek gargara, or gourgoúrisma (gargle or gurgle) or the Latin gargarizo or gurgle (gargle or gurgle) or gurgulio which means gullet.
It is believed that the use of animal shaped water spouts originated in ancient Egypt where water spouts were shaped like lion’s heads. The earliest known animal shaped water spout was dug up in Alesia, France. It dates from 160 C.E. Greeks also had lion mouth spouts on their temples and similar stone works were also used by the Etruscans. Gargoyles, as we know them, rose to prominence during the Middle Ages and were primarily used on cathedrals. Bill Yenne states, “There is no accepted explanation of why they exist as they do.” However there are several theories as to what the gargoyle represents.
One theory states that the gargoyles represented Christianity’s washing away of sins and to frighten Satan. The belief that once a person accepted Christianity their sins were washed away was demonstrated by the water pouring from the mouths of the gargoyles perched all around the cathedral. This display of power by the Church was meant to frighten Satan, to show that the Church was more powerful than God’s leading fallen angel.
A second theory states that the goal of using gargoyles was to entice the local pagans to come into the churches. The local pagans were the Church’s future parishioners. Most gargoyles are a mix of Greco-Roman and Celtic mythological creatures or deities. What better way to influence locals than to display images of their beliefs. The unconscious message would have been “See? Your gods are really ours” and thus would begin indoctrination.
Another theory conjectures that gargoyles were actual spirits or demons and they were captured and bound into the stone shapes then placed upon the cathedrals to bind them into the service of the Church.
The most common myth regarding the origin of gargoyles stems from the village of Rouen, in France, circa 1100s C.E. The story is that the village was being terrorized by a large dragon which would spout large amounts of water and flood the village. The dragon could also breathe fire. It would rampage and destroy the village unless the villagers offered a human sacrifice. Originally the sacrifice was a criminal but occasionally a maiden was offered. The dragon preferred the maidens. One day a priest named Romanus came to the village and told the villagers that if they converted to Christianity he would be able to defeat the dragon. The villagers agreed and converted. Variations of the story say the priest subdued and captured the dragon by himself or with the aid of a condemned prisoner. The story says he used his crucifix to overcome the dragon and his priestly raiment to tie it up. The dragon was brought to the village where it was burned at the stake. Remarkably the head and throat did not burn because they had been tempered by its fiery breath. So the head was cut off and mounted upon the village wall giving rise to the first Gargoyle.
Whatever the origin of these fantastic creations, they had a very practical purpose. These stone creatures or caricatures were part of elaborate drainage systems constructed as a way to divert rainwater from the roofs of cathedrals. The destructive force of the rainwater was diverted into drains and gutters which eventually ended in pouring out of the mouth of a gargoyle and thus away from the walls and foundations of the cathedral where it could destroy the masonry. Today they are found primarily in Europe on cathedrals, castles and some manor houses. They also have made their way to the Americas. The Mission of San Luis Rey, in San Diego, California has gargoyles that are remarkably similar to the ones excavated at Mount Auxois, France (Alesia) dated to 160 C.E.
Figurines of gargoyles and grotesques are used by some today as physical receptacles for egregores. They are infused with the spirit and will of those who own them to fulfill a specific , usually that of protection. Whatever the use they are put to Gargoyles have found a place in the hearts and minds of a lot of people.