I have been fascinated with gargoyles since I was very young and saw pictures of Notre Dame Cathedral in an encyclopedia. I remember not fearing the figures, but instead feeling afraid of some of the faces that were depicted on the walls of the structure. I have never claimed to be normal y’all.
A gargoyle is a figure projecting from the gutter of a building that acts as a spout to carry water away from the building. Gargoyles are a true architectural feature; their purpose is to keep water from destroying the building and its foundation. There are still some really cool, strange, and downright bizarre versions of gargoyles that I can appreciate. The word “gargoyle” is an English derivative of the French word gargouille, which actually comes from the word meaning “to gargle.”
A grotesque is a style of decorative art characterized by fanciful or fantastic human and animal forms, often interwoven with foliage or similar figures, that may distort the natural into absurdity, ugliness, or caricature –Merriam Webster. It also simplifies a statue or a face that is strictly decorative but distorted. I have been calling all my figurines by the wrong name for over forty-five years!
One more interesting tidbit: a hybrid of two or more creatures is known as a chimera. Think of Harry Potter’s Fantastic Beasts. The griffin (or griffon) is a great example of this, with the body, back legs, and tail of a lion, and the head and wings of an eagle. Before we get too much further, a gargoyle can also be a grotesque, but a grotesque can’t be a gargoyle.
Egypt, Rome, and Greece
In ancient Egypt, gargoyles (technically, most were grotesques) were often depicted as lions, griffins, and sphinxes. In Rome and Greece, there was a mixture of actual gargoyles and grotesques used in their architecture. Fun fact: the Temple of Zeus in Greece originally had one hundred and two gargoyles. Most of the gargoyles in the temple were so heavy that they eroded and broke off the structure. There are only about thirty-nine of the original gargoyles left today.
Some of them have faces showing all emotions and some would fall into shall we say risqué positions such as a butt. Yeah, I’m going to let you all Google that image. Thanks a lot, Google!
I’m sure other cultures in Asia also have versions of gargoyles and grotesques, but for the sake of simplicity I’m only going to investigate China for now. In China, they’re called roof charms, 檐兽. On a few of the buildings I saw in pictures, the gargoyles are depicted as dragons! I love this stuff—maybe a little too much.
Don’t worry, I can hear some of you asking about the lions by doorways. Well, those are a Chinese version of a grotesque, and they’re called shi or shi-shi. Shi are protection symbols that guard entranceways to buildings and homes. They’re always in pairs and traditionally, they’re carved from decorative stone in the shape of lions. The significance of the lion is that it indicates safety and luck in China. So, it seems they, too, see gargoyles and grotesques as protectors.
I must ask if we shouldn’t also include the ancient Mayan and Aztec cultures in this. For example, a number of important buildings in Mexico City are adorned with gargoyles. Places like pricy homes, government buildings, and churches have gargoyles. These examples are newer and likely came with the Spanish influence of the conquistadors since they seem to have more of a European gothic influence. What about places like the City of the Gods, Teotihuacan? There are dozens of gargoyles and grotesques on ruins in this UNESCO World Heritage site, including the famous Temple of Quetzalcoatl. These take the shape of a Mayan sun god! They’re thousands of years old as this temple has parts that have been dated as far back as 350 BCE.
Modern-day Mexico City has had a celebration since 2007 for the alebrije. The alebrije is a form of Mexican folk art in which brightly colored paper mache sculptures are made in the shapes of fantastical beasts. Some are dragons, jaguar-men, and other grotesques. The participants take part in the Monumental Alebrije Parade through the city. What a fun festival this must be!
Gargoyles & Gothic Architecture
Gothic architecture is amazing! I’m not an architect, nor am I an art history major, so I’m only going to do a brief overview of gothic architecture. However, the source below, A Beginners Field Guide to Gargoyles, is a great reference.
Gothic architecture was a style in Europe and at its peak from the late twelfth century through the sixteenth century, it was known for five key elements: large stained-glass windows, pointed arches, ribbed vaults, flying buttresses, and ornate decoration. The last element is where our gargoyles were featured most prominently.
Notre Dame and its Gargoyles
The French legend of “La Gargouille” tells of a dragon that terrorized the town of Rouen. The gargouille was said to have bat-like wings, and a long neck, and he would breathe fire. This went on for centuries. The dragon swallowed ships and devoured young women and children, and would flood the town until around 600 CE when a priest called St. Romanus told the town he would slay the dragon only if everyone converted to Christianity. The townspeople agreed. St. Romanus made the sign of the cross and then led the dragon into town, where it was either burned or thrown into the Seine, depending on which source you read. In the burning version, the creature’s head wouldn’t burn and was cut off and added to the local church while the ashes of the body were thrown into the river. The gargouille’s head became a ward against evil and other dragons.
Pop Culture References to Gargoyles
In our modern age, pop culture has no doubt shaped our ideas and, in my case, misconceptions of gargoyles and grotesques. I was an adult by the time Disney released the cartoon series Gargoyles, but I watched faithfully anyway. Of course, I tried to say the guilty pleasure was for my toddler daughters, who honestly couldn’t have cared less. Though maybe, the movie version from Disney of the Hunchback of Notre Dame was another story. My oldest Grim did wear out that VHS tape. To this day, when I hear the name Goliath I don’t think of the biblical reference; no, it’s the cartoon series. Then I found the movie I, Frankenstein and those gargoyles were depicting angels. I can go on and on and on. I thought y’all might enjoy a list of some of the other pop culture references to gargoyles. Hopefully, some will bring back memories for you as well.
Thanks to pop culture, we were taught that gargoyles were stone statues that come to life to protect humans. Some of the more imaginative sources gave the gargoyles (grotesques) magical powers.
Weird Tales 1932, Alater Ashton Smith Magazine
The Horn of Vapula published in 1932
1932: Maker of gargoyles, movie
1971: Dr. Who (Bok was the name of the gargoyle) Season 8 The daemons: Episode 1-5
1972: Gargoyles, a movie based out of New Mexico
1974: Dungeons & Dragons, the white box set
1984: Ghost Busters, the gargoyles were represented as hell hounds
1990s: Disney’s Gargoyles Animated series (originally aired from October 24, 1994, to February 15, 1997, for three seasons & 78 half-hour episodes)
1996: Hunchback of Notre Dame from Disney (the three gargoyles were Victor, Hugo, and Laverne)
2004: Gargoyle, movie
2007: Reign of Gargoyles movie
2014: I, Frankenstein (If you have seen this, what is your take on the gargoyles in this movie? Benevolent? Historians, or general turds?)
2016: Fallen, movie
2018: Ophelia, a movie
Alien Gargoyle went viral
Does anyone remember the memes that went around about the alien gargoyle in 2013? I saw a lot of these with speculations that claimed aliens exist as evidenced by this carving, or that it was proof of time travel. I was greatly entertained by each of these while secretly wondering about the actual origin. The short clip below gives a nice history of just where this gargoyle came from.
Fun Places To See Gargoyles Today
Europe & Asia
- St. Vitus Cathedral, Prague, Czech Republic
- Merton Chapel College, Oxford, England
- Westminster Abbey, London, England
- Chapel of Bethlehem, France (they have gremlins!)
- Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris, France
- Ulmer Munsler, Ulm, Germany
- Duomo di Milano, Milan, Italy
- Eikan-do, Japan
- Batalha, Portugal
- Pena Castle, Sintra, Portugal
- Dragon Bridge, Slovenia
- Puente del Reino, Valencia, Spain
Darth Vader Washington DC
Throughout my wanderings, I have seen various gargoyles and grotesques in cities around the United States and Germany. I’m willing to bet other members of the Grim family have too. My biggest suggestion would be to look up and marvel at the wonders around you. If you happen to be of the mindset that cathedrals are a great place to tour, you’re bound to have one close by that will have eye candy. Have fun gargoyle hunting and please do share your pictures on our Facebook page. Who knows? Maybe we can add them to our list and make it more entertaining for us all.
Our Gargoyles & Closing Thoughts
I wanted to share some of our versions of gargoyles with you. Some were store-bought and repainted, others were resculpted and painted, and some were gifts we just enjoy. We hope you find your own version that brings you happiness. We’re going to stick with the notion that they do protect our home. And we’re going to go gargoyle hunting again soon.
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Thank you for spending time with us today, we appreciate each and every one of you!