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