Monday, January 16, 2012

Gargoyles: Gettin' out of the Gutter

Go and look for the dejected
Once proud idol remembered in stone aloud
--A God in an Alcove, Bauhaus
The Hubs loves garden gnomes.  I find them to be just a diminutive relative of the equally as evil clown.  Hubs buys a suitable obnoxious resin one every year and sticks it somewhere in my garden, where it waits to come alive and disembowel me while I'm picking tomatoes.  About mid July, Hubs' special gnome has a horrible accident, usually involving my shovel and a flask of holy water.

So this year, we are compromising on yard art.  With gargoyles.
The frightening creatures that perch on many a Gothic rooftop actually were created with a utilitarian purpose in mind.  Need a hint?  The term gargoyle in old French is derived from “throat” or “to swallow.”  Now if you have a mind that works like mine, you’ve probably just labeled this site NSFW and are bracing for pictures of gargoyle porn.  I hate to disappoint, but these evil entities of the eaves actually were designed as waterspouts.

Gargoyle drainspout

Superstition held that gargoyles would frighten away evil spirits and keep your building foundation intact, too.  After the lead drainpipe was introduced, their function become more decorative.  A gargoyle used purely for decor is called a “grotesque.”  The earliest gargoyles were fashioned in the image of wild animals, pets, and mythical monsters.  The Temple of Zeus even had gargoyles, as did Egyptian architecture.  Some of the most famous gargoyles are found in Paris at Notre Dame.
Gargoyles found at the Temple of Zeus

Gargoyle overlooking Paris from the cathedral of Notre Dame
A French legend involving St. Romanus attempted to explain the use of gargoyles on religious buildings in Europe.  In the 600s AD, St. Romanus saved the city of Rouen (of Joan of Arc fame) from a dragon-like creature named La Gargouille.  When the monster was destroyed in a ceremonial pyre, its head and neck would not burn.  Therefore, St. Romanus mounted the head on the walls of the church to protect it from evil spirits and an architectural phenomenon was born.

It seems an odd contrast--these monstrous images juxtaposed with the piety of the Church and the majestic precision of Gothic cathedral architecture.  So why did so many churches embrace a beast resembling the Devil on their rooftops?  Many believe that as ancient tribes from Celtic and Gaulish descent became assimilated into Christianity, gargoyles and grotesques offered a familiar touchstone for them given their roots in polytheistic mythologies and idol worship.  Religious leaders soon discovered that using statues and carvings was an excellent way to educate the illiterate.  Gargoyles were used to depict sins, both literally and figuratively.  Gargoyles were hideous and frightening, a symbol of the dark forces outside the church that waited to corrupt man.  Some gargoyles were giants devouring humans or the stone walls of the church itself--perhaps a lesson in the things that try to eat away at the soul.  

The Seven Deadly Sins according to Gargoyles.

The naughty gargoyles at Valencia.   I'm delivering on that gargoyle porn I promised.
Although they may have assisted the Church in conveying ideas to the common people, some clergy did not embrace the gargoyle, thinking it was a form of idolatry.  St. Bernard of Clairvaux was the most famous 12th century gargoyle-hater.  His take on the gargoyle was not flattering:
"What are these fantastic monsters doing in the cloisters before the eyes of the brothers as they read? What is the meaning of these unclean monkeys, these strange savage lions, and monsters? To what purpose are here placed these creatures, half beast, half man, or these spotted tigers? I see several bodies with one head and several heads with one body. Here is a quadruped with a serpent's head, there a fish with a quadruped's head, then again an animal half horse, half goat... Surely if we do not blush for such absurdities, we should at least regret what we have spent on them."
The Gargoyle response to the haters.
In 1969, historians TK Sheridan and Ann Ross published a theory that the majority of gargoyles and grotesques in Gothic architectures were actually purposely designed to look like pagan deities.  New converts from pagan religions--many unhappy about leaving their rich traditions--saw them as protection and symbols of strength and purpose.  The Church may have realized that it was impossible to eradicate the extensive religious rituals of pagan worshippers and instead absorbed some of their beliefs to make Christianity a bit more palatable to the pagan masses.
Disney's Gargoyle offering in The Hunchback of Notre Dame
For instance, the Green Man, a Celtic deity that promoted growth and fertility, was a popular subjects for gargoyles in the 12th and 13th century.  Worship of nature was so important and inspirational to many tribes on the edge of the Christian era that religious leaders decided not only to tolerate the image, but to venerate it as well.  Other gargoyles are horned and for the Celts represented prosperity and strength, harking back to the horned gods of the Romans.  Only through years of assimilation have those horned beings started being associated with the Anti-Christ--more horrible than hallowed.
In modern fiction, gargoyles are typically depicted as a winged humanoid race with demonic features: generally horns, a tail, and talons.  During the day, they are changed into their stony form, but can morph into a living creature when the sun goes down.  Paranormal romance has some great gargoyle characters, such as Levet in Alexandra Ivy’s Guardians series.  Terry Pratchett has gargoyles in Discworld, and they were one of the original monsters in the Dungeons and Dragons game.  And one of my favorite childhood throwbacks is a Jonny Quest cartoon, The House of Seven Gargoyles.

Have a wonderful day, and the next time you see a gargoyle, don't be frightened.  They are protecting you.  And if all goes well, here’s the newest addition to my garden.  He's going to kick some gnome ass.



  1. LOL Gnomes are just weird and awful. I love that gargoyle you got. he should devour the little creeps. I also can't stand those wild haired gnomes that people out on their desks. They look possessed.

  2. Gargoyles don't get enough love, I'd love on on my roof :-)

  3. Lol! I hate gnomes too. Like Sarah, I'd love a gargoyle on my roof. It might scare away the Third Reich-esque eagle that my neighbours have perched on their roof.

  4. Fantastic, never knew any of that. Funnily, as I was scrolling down I was picking my nose just when I got to the photo of the gargoyle picking his nose. In my dementia like stupor, I thought my computer screen had turned into a mirror! Boy, I need some moisturiser. The Disney gargoyles are the best :-)

  5. Not a huge fan of the garden gnome, but that one would be awesome to have around the garden. Serial killer gnome. Sweet. (As long as it faced the neighbor's house and not mine. He's cool, but he's still creepy.)

  6. Ha, your husband has unique tastes.

    I remember reading a blog awhile back that encouraged readers to post pictures of garden gnomes and they were then awarded points for their image.

  7. I came for the porn, but got quite an education too! Thanks!

  8. Jeez, bring on the shovel and the holy water! That gnome is gruesome. Your hubs has an interesting sense of humor! That's an impressive garden guard you've got, and I can believe he'll handle the gnomes without much trouble. I'm with St. Bernard, though--what ARE we thinking with these guys? Maybe we need them for balance. . . so we're always aware that extreme good is just as bad as extreme bad? I dunno, but they creep me out.

  9. I'm still laughing about the horrible accident your garden gnomes always experience!

  10. Gargoyles totally kick gnome ass. And I can't believe you quoted Bauhaus. LOVED them. Even named my cat Murphy after the lead singer back in the day.

  11. Aw crud, I think I forgot to bring my gnome in for the winter. He's gonna be so mad...

    Ah, but now I know I can get a gargoyle for protection. :) Thanks for the background and thanks for signing up for the Tumble 4 Ya blogfest! It's going to be so fun. :D

  12. Fascinating as always. Also, your gargoyle is badass!

  13. There's a place in Western Australia called Gnomesville :) I took photos of a lot of the gnomes and recently used them to make a video clip, which you can see here:

    It's a ridiculous place but I found it kind of fascinating. Garden gnomes in general though...? Not for me. ;) Still, my brother and his wife have a gnome who they took around the world with them & photographed in various locations. I think that's pretty cool.

  14. I think you chose the perfect gargoyle to protect your garden and please your husband. At least he doesn't collect snakes, or other scary live creatures. Julie

  15. I wouldn't want to mess with your latest addition! He looks like he has some serious attitude.
    I've never been a fan of gargoyles, or gnomes for that matter. They fall in the same category as those creepy clowns. But you've enlightened me, as always with your fascinating post. I'll be kinder and more gentle to gargoyles from now on. ; )

  16. Aloha Julie,

    Found you via the '80s Crush BlogFest and what a cool article about those dodgy stone things:)

    No, that was a fun read about gargoyles! I'm a new follower and look forward to reading many more of your posts.

  17. That garden gnome is going to give me some serious nightmares!

  18. I love learning so much stuff on your blog! The gargoyle porn was actually funny. Is he peeing into a cup? Ew.

  19. Not much of a fan of gargoyles, but I loved learning all this about them. Loved the gargoyle porn - LOL!

  20. I did not know gargoyles were drain spouts! ha. I have never liked gnomes. Creepy.

    Fun post! thanks!

  21. Gargoyles always have the best views...whereas gnomes get to view the dirt and bushes!

    I wish I was a gargoyle!

  22. That *is* a naughty gargoyle ...

  23. I'm trying to figure out if the one responding to haters is picking his nose or giving the finger. Maybe both. You picked a very respectable gargoyle. Very cool.

  24. Love Gargoyles and I admit, I like gnomes as well, as long as they look friendly. We have one on our porch that our cat likes to talk to. It's interesting, I was just thinking about gargoyles this past week and how I would love to try drawing them, it would certainly be different. You always seem to post about things I've been contemplating drawing, it's like you're in my head or something. haha! Very cool gargoyle for your garden, I hope it works out.
    P.S. There are some pretty awesome gargoyles on the library in downtown Chicago.
    Have a glorious day!


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