In the 1990’s there was a cartoon called “Gargoyles” about nocturnal creatures that would turn to stone in the daytime, but at night they would come out and fight crime. It was awesome. Now, protecting a city from the decay of organized crime isn’t something that real world gargoyles are actually any good at, but it might surprise you to know that a gargoyles true purpose was indeed to protect the building where it was installed.
Gothic architecture is fairly famous for it’s use of gargoyles. The Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris is absolutely covered in legendary looking statues of men with animal features peering down with an ominous and foreboding appearance, surely to ward off any evil spirits that would dare to approach. But many of the statues lining the walls of the famous Parisian cathedral are not gargoyles at all. They are called grotesques. So what’s the difference?
Gargoyles and Grotesques
The word gargoyle stems from an old French word “gargouille” which actually means throat. Today when we brush our teeth and “gargle”, we’re using the same root word. Water that “gurgles”? Same word. So how does this apply to gargoyles?
Gargoyles were built along the buttresses of old architecture. Sluices carved into the building would collect rainwater and direct it toward the gargoyles. Those gargoyles would be carved, facing out from the building with a hole carved in the mouth. When the rainwater came down, the gargoyle would spit it far away. This would help to keep the foundation dry, protecting the foundation of the building and ensuring longevity to ancient architecture.
Large churches would use the gargoyle as a symbol to speak to the hearts of common illiterate men and women, and since they didn’t need that many rainwater displacements, they just built statues to go along with them that did nothing but look scary. So that is the distinction. A gargoyle will protect a building from the ravages of time, but a grotesque will just sit there and creep you out.
Gargoyles Weren’t Invented in France
Yes, we see gargoyles all over the gothic architecture of the 16th century buildings that exist, and Gargouille was definitely a French word, but gargoyles as a system of rainwater displacement were around for a long time before that. Rain has always been around, and it didn’t take men very long to figure out that rain was bad for a buildings foundation.
The temple of Zeus in Greece still has 39 lionhead gargoyles. There used to be 102 when it was all in one piece. Before the Greeks, the Egyptians had been using gargoyles to displace rainwater for centuries.
These days, gargoyles have fallen a touch out of fashion. The brilliant and terrifying beauty of those carvings would have taken quite a while to fashion properly. Gargoyles today would be impractical. Climbing up to clean your gutters is tricky enough without having to keep your mythical statues free of birds nests. Then again, perhaps if they did become popular again, Alu-Rex would probably come up with a gutter guard protection that fits your standard gargoyle.
We wouldn’t put it past them.
There are still gargoyles that exist today that were created within this century. One of the most famous examples is the “alien” of Paisley Abbey in Scotland. Though the abbey itself is old, many of the gargoyles needed to be replaced during the early 1990’s. When the stonemason finished his work, no one really noticed that the new gargoyle wasn’t as classical as the rest. That might be a good thing. If they had asked for a refund and replacement at the time, they wouldn’t have hundreds of tourists visiting to take pictures of the Ridley Scott re-creation today.
The 90’s were a good decade for Gargoyles.