I admit it. I have a little “thang” for dragons. It’s no coincidence that my favorite gargoyles are dragon-like. In our family, we have a thing called a “watch dragon”. It all started when my daughter was small. I had a small pewter dragon with a crystal clutched tightly in his claws. He had a magical aura about him, so I bought another to hang in her window, so I could see from my dragon’s crystal to hers when I had to be away.
Because I have this friendly association with dragons, I don’t think of gargoyles as terrifying creatures, although some of them are undeniably creepy. But what is the history of gargoyles? What were they for? Wikipedia says (and therefore it must be true) that a gargoyle is “a grotesque with a spout designed to convey water from a roof and away from the side of a building”, to protect the masonry. The term gargoyle originates from the French word gargouille, which translates to “gullet” or “throat”. So there was a practical application.
There were also purely ornamental gargoyles, however, which served to frighten evil spirits away. So, having your own gargoyle could be considered a good thing. If you don’t bang your head on it, and it doesn’t scare the shit out of you emerging out of the dark at night. But, not all gargoyles are grotesque. Some were intended to be amusing, and some resembled people or animals. Though common in Gothic architecture, they were also a feature of a variety of different architectural styles. There are functional examples in both Ancient Egyptian and Greek architecture, commonly in the form of a lion or lions mouth, and various animal forms are found in Etruscan and Roman architecture as well. The use of gargoyles to transport water away from buildings diminished in the early eighteenth century, replaced – sadly – by downspouts. Apparently there was something of an issue with the heavy ones fracturing and falling from the building parapets. Admittedly, this would give one a fright of an entirely different magnitude. Assuming you lived to tell about your experience.
In any case, in the modern day, Gargoyles are more of an interesting curiosity. I have a couple of garden variety ones myself, though they reside on my mantelpiece, rather than in the garden. And they lifted not one claw, apparently, when two owls decided to venture into our living room one night. But, that is a story for another day…
One can find an entertaining variety of Gargoyles on the internet. Here are a handful to whet your appetite. If you want more – check out the Gallery page for an indulgent collection of these delightful creatures! And, for a sideways look at Gargoyles, check out this week’s Instagram posts. Too. Much. Fun. They are.
Winged griffin – typified by features of both a lion and an eagle
Satyr (human form with various animal features) and Chimera (mythological creature with parts from multiple animals)
Columnar sandstone satyrs – Germany
And my all-time favorite – a contemporary remake – alien-like gargoyle on Paisley Abbey, in Scotland (one of many interesting examples to be found at Contemporary Gargoyle
Contemporary Gargoyle – Paisley Abbey (from Atlas Obscura blog on Slate)