Many gargoyles peer down from medieval churches, cathedrals, houses and town halls in Western Europe. They are usually animals, or people, or hybrid animals/people carved in stone. The animals may be real animals or fantastic beasts. Dogs and lions were the most frequent animals used, while dragons were the most frequent fantasy creatures depicted. The dragons usually had a pair of membranous wings, some legs, a long reptilian tail, a long snout with visible teeth, and a fierce expression.
Before the use of downpipes, waterspouts (which projected out from an upper part of a building or a roof gutter) preserved stonework by diverting the flow of rainwater away from buildings. They prevented rainwater from running down the walls and affecting the foundations. Gargoyles are decorative waterspouts, being carved stone figures with water spouts through their mouths. The figure was often an elongated animal because the length of the gargoyle determines how far water is thrown from the wall. They were usually carved in the form of a grotesque face, figure or frightening creature with wide-opened mouths to enable the water flow.
By the way, the word “gargoyle” shares a common root with the word “gargle”; which comes from “gargouille”, a French word for “throat”.
History of gargoyles
Gargoyles can be traced back thousands of years in Egypt, Italy and Greece. Lion-shaped gargoyles were used by the ancient Egyptians and on Greek temples. During the Roman Empire, lead pipes were added to gargoyles to channel water without eroding the stone. And gargoyle water spouts were found at the ruins of Pompeii.
There are gargoyles on medieval (Middle aged) church buildings in Western Europe like the Gothic Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. Most were carved out of limestone or marble between the 10th and 15th centuries during the Romanesque and Gothic styles of architecture and decorative arts. Although once lead drainpipes were introduced in the 16th century there was no longer any practical need for gargoyles, they continued to be used for decorative purposes.
A dragon legend
There is a French legend about St. Romanus delivering the village of Rouen from a monster called Gargouille in about 600 AD. The fierce dragon which had a long, reptilian neck, a slender snout, batlike wings and the ability to breathe fire from its mouth, lived in a cave near the river Seine. The dragon caused much fear and destruction with its fiery breath, spouting water and the devouring of ships and men.
There are multiple versions of the story, but when la Gargouille was burned, its head and neck were so well tempered by the heat of its fiery breath that they would not burn. These were then mounted on the walls of the church (or city wall) to scare off evil spirits and used for protection.
Although this legend may be embellished and have changed over time, it’s interesting that dragon stories occur in many cultures, particularly the Chinese and Japanese.
Is there a link between dragon gargoyles and dinosaurs?
Dragons and dinosaurs
The word “dragon” was used 23 times in the King James Bible (KJB), which was published in 1611, about 400 years ago. It seems as though the original translators of the KJB understood that a “dragon” was a real creature, not one that was legendary or mythical. It appears the “dragons” that were understood to be real animals were probably types of dinosaur which are now extinct. The translators of the KJB didn’t know about dinosaurs as this word was coined 230 years later in 1841. So the word “dragon” is probably an old word for a type of dinosaur.
Could some of the gargoyle dragons have been carved from the dragons that were known in the 1600s?
Ancient images and dinosaurs
There is also a theory that gargoyles were inspired by early findings of dinosaur fossils such as proceratops. Adrienne Mayor (“The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times”) saw a similarity between some Greek and Roman images and dinosaurs. To explain this she hypothesised that these were based on fossil bones discovered in these times.
She said that, “The earliest depictions of griffins looked really gnarly and brutish. It looked as if the artist were trying to portray something real rather than mythological. And then … I realized that they looked like modern reconstructions of dinosaurs in a museum”.
However, as she believed that all the dinosaurs died out millions of years ago, she failed to consider the possibility that the griffins could be based on seeing the actual creatures, not just the bones. After all, it takes modern scientists considerable research to reconstruct the appearance of an unknown animal from its bones.
As the story of the gargoyles relates to ancient times, some of it has probably been lost from our history. But they remind us of a time when buildings were more decorative and ornate. Some speculate about the symbolism of gargoyles, but I think they show the skill and creativity of the medieval stone masons.
It is interesting to note the image of a dragon on the Ishtar gate in Babylon which was constructed about 575 BC.
Written, February 2015
Chinese New Year is the main holiday of the year for more than one quarter of the world’s population. Our daughter and her family and Chinese in-laws spent the Chinese New Year in Hong Kong where the streets were decorated colorfully. Chinese holiday traditions include parades, feasts, fireworks, lanterns and giving children money in red envelopes. This is the year of the dragon in the Chinese calendar, which began on 23 January 2012 and will end on 9 February 2013. A surge in births is expected in China during this year as it is regarded as the zodiac sign which will give their offspring the most success and happiness in life.
Each year is associated with one of the 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac in the following order: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Sheep or Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog and Pig. So the year of the dragon follows the year of the rabbit and is followed by the year of the snake. The names are repeated every 12 years. Rather than remembering their current age, the Chinese tend to remember the animal of their birth-year. For example, I was born in the year of the Ox.
Nowadays the Chinese calendar is mainly used for traditional festivals that occur on new moons or full moons. As the months are lunar months, it has the feature that the phases of the moon, and astronomical and tidal phenomena associated with them, such as spring and neap tides, fall on approximately the same day in each month.
Today it is considered that the Chinese dragon is a legendary and mythical creature. But what about when the Chinese zodiac was developed thousands of years ago? Clearly the other 11 creatures in the zodiac were not mythical. Why would one be mythical? That would be inconsistent. Was it a creature that was known in ancient times? Could it be extinct?
Dragons in the Bible
Dragons are mentioned in the King James Bible (KJB), which was published about 400 years ago. The KJB is the all-time bestselling book in the English language. In the Old Testament, on 23 occasions the name “dragon(s)” was given to animals that lived on the land and in the sea.
Are these creatures real or mythical? During a drought wild donkeys were said to pant like dragons (Jer. 14:6). The “dragon well” was located near the southern walls of Jerusalem (Neh. 2:13). Also, Jerusalem and Babylon were to be reduced to a heap of ruins and a “den of dragons” (Jer. 9:11; 51:37). Pharaoh king of Egypt was like a “great dragon” lying in the Nile River and Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon would devour Judah like a dragon swallows people (Ezek. 29:3; Jer. 51:34). It seems as though the original translators of the KJB understood that a “dragon” was a real creature, not one that was legendary or mythical.
It is interesting to note that in more recent editions of the KJB, the word “dragon” has been changed to “jackal” or “serpent” or “sea-monster”, which are clearly real animals.
Dragons and dinosaurs
In the KJB, “dragons” are associated with Leviathan (Ps 74:13-14; Isa. 27:1). Leviathan in turn is associated with Behemoth and their descriptions seem to match those of certain dinosaurs (Job 40:15-24; 41:1-34). Another creature, Rahab, is like Leviathan (Job 9:13; 26:12; Isa. 30:7; 51:9). These creatures were also used as metaphors for powerful nations such as Egypt and Babylonia (Jer. 51:34; Ezek. 29:3).
Therefore, it appears the “dragons” that were understood to be real animals were probably types of dinosaur which are now extinct. The translators of the KJB didn’t know about dinosaurs as this word was coined 230 years later in 1841. So the word “dragon” is an old word for “dinosaur”. The changes to the text of the KJB occurred after the theory of evolution popularised the idea that the dinosaurs died out millions of years before human beings populated the earth. This shows how one’s worldview can be used to reject evidence and to modify history. Unfortunately this aspect of the secular theory of evolution has influenced all Bible translations.
It is interesting that dragon stories occur in many cultures, particularly the Chinese and Japanese. The pictures we see of dragons are often composite drawings that combine the features of different kinds of dinosaurs. They would also be embellished.
Dragons and dinosaurs are massive examples of God’s creation. When Job was reminded of the greatest dragons and dinosaurs he responded, “My ears had heard of You but now my eyes have seen You. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” He had seen God’s great power and this caused him to turn and go in the opposite direction and follow God (Job 42:5-6NIV). God also wants us to respond to His power and might.
Written, February 2012