A Story of Gargoyles
By J. Marlando
Gargoyles can be traced back thousands of years ago to ancient Egypt, Rome and Greece. As many other ancient societies, Egyptians believed in deities with heads of animals which goes back to the very ancient first shamans (or spiritual leaders) probably practicing their mysticism in prehistoric times. In any case, the Egyptians would replicate their gods in both their architecture and wall paintings—no doubt to protect the dwelling from evil. Perhaps the largest gargoyle—actually called grotesques which I will be explaining, might well be the Sphinx itself?
Ancient Greek culture began placing “grotesques” on the corners of their own temples mixing their own mythology with their architecture. Grotesques actually predate gargoyles by thousands of years because, it seems, real gargoyles are actually grotesques with a practical purpose.
With this in mind it is probably safe to assume that the term Gargoyle was popularized by the medieval architects of the 12th century. The word itself comes from Old French “gargouille” and Late Latin “gurgulio” both meaning “throat.” Starting in the 12th or at least the 13th century, gargoyles were placed in strategic places (especially the corners of buildings, churches and so forth) to spew rainwater away from the roofs which was necessary to protect the stones and mortar used in construction of castles to cathedrals.
Superstition at the time—especially by the vast pagan population—believed that fierce looking grotesques chased off evil spirits from their homes and other buildings so gargoyles not only served to minimize water damage but to satisfy the superstitious at the same time. (I suspect that the church sanctioned gargoyle images on its architecture so that Pagans and whoever else deemed “backward peasants” would enter its doors for conversion. There are a number of theories on this topic, however, but this is the one I favor.
Speaking of theories, I have read numerous times that “grotesque” means ugly but this is not the case—a more accurate explanation of the term is “surprising, weird, strange and unexpected.”
Folklore is interesting: Gargoyles are known to ward off evil spirits and probably anyone with evil intent. It is also believed that they come alive at night and travel about doing whatever gargoyles do. They always return to their places at dawn, however. Here are a few that were caught on camera after their return:
My wife and I have gargoyles (*actually grotesques)—indeed, one outside protecting our yard and one inside protecting our house and, do not scoff, they work: we have not been attacked by dragons, evil spirits or evil-doers since we’ve had them. And, we are in good company when we put our trust in the fierce, little fellows too. Those whose who built important places like Princeton University, Oxford and even Chicago State and good, old Duke obvious agree:
PRINCETON GROTESQUE OXFORD GROTESQUE
CHICAGO STATE GROTESQUE DUKE UNIVERISITY GROTESQUE
And, even the most grand and beautiful Chrysler Building in New York has its own gargoyles to serve and to protect.
This alone should be enough to inspire you to place at least one or two grotesques in your house and yard as well. Take heed, it’s better to be safe than sorry!
*The easy way to remember the difference between a grotesque and a gargoyle is that grotesques are decorative and gargoyles have practical purposes.