Gargoyles: The grotesque carved creatures of Christian architecture were borrowed from ancient pagan religions

Gargoyle of the Notre Dame in Paris. By Pedro J Pacheco – CC BY-SA 4.0

Gargoyles are instantly recognizable, grotesque, carved creatures peering down from the tops of churches and cathedrals.

However, their origin has nothing to do with Christianity; in fact, they are borrowed symbols that were incorporated into Christian buildings.

Their history dates back to ancient, pre-Christian times when they acted as protective talismans against the powers of evil.

Ancient Egyptians carved animal-themed gargoyles whose forms were often based on lions and included griffins and sphinxes.

The ancient Greeks and Romans followed their example, carving strange half beast and half human creatures, half goat and half horse creatures, fish with a quadruped’s head, quadruped with a serpent’s head, and many others in order to keep evil forces at bay.

Throughout the world, archeological excavations have revealed a lot of these mythical creatures, meaning they were widely spread in the ancient world.

Among them are a 4th century BC lion mask discovered on the Acropolis in Athens, lion-shaped water spouts built on the walls of the temple of Zeus in Olympia, and a 13,000-year-old stone crocodile found in Turkey, which is the oldest gargoyle ever to be discovered.

Dubrovnik Gargoyles. donald judge. CC BY 2.0

Gargoyles were extremely popular during the Middle Ages and are a well-known characteristic of architecture from the Gothic period.

Why the Catholic church decided to incorporate them in churches and cathedrals is the subject of much scholarly debate.

Some believe gargoyles are modeled after Celtic deities and their existence in Christian buildings is the result of the church attempting to attract people to Christianity by incorporating images of pagan deities and mythological creatures.

Gargoyles of Siena Cathedral. Petar Milošević. CC BY-SA 4.0

However, other historians disagree with this theory. They believe the church used gargoyles for the same purpose as the ancients did: to frighten away evil by facing it with an equally powerful evil strength.

The gargoyles were guardians of the church. Everyone who entered in a cathedral was under their protection, but it was limited to the bounds of the church.

Gargoyle from Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence, Italy (sometimes called “il Boccalone”). Sailko. CC BY 3.0

Gargoyles on churches do have a functional purpose. They are, in general, decorative water spouts, with their mouth connected to the gutter system of the roof.

The word gargoyle comes from the French gargouille, meaning “throat”, and technically only refers to the creatures that function as water spouts, while the ornamental ones are typically referred to as grotesques, which is derived from the Italian word grotteschi  originating from the Latin grotto, meaning “cave.”

The name originates with sculptures of mysterious creatures that were excavated from underground Roman ruins, which were believed to be ancient caves.

Gargoyle from Rosslyn Chapel, Roslin, Scotland. Ludi Ling. CC BY-SA 3.0

Some believe gargoyles are named after a dragon of French legend called La Gargouille.

As the story goes, in the 7th century, the town of Rouen was terrorized by a dragon that lived in a cave near the river Seine. It would cause chaos and kill inhabitants of the town.

One day, a priest named Romanus visited Rouen and promised to kill the beast if the pagan inhabitants would build a church and accept Christianity as their true religion.

Notre Dame Church in Dijon, France. Ceinturion. CC BY-SA 3.0

The desperate citizens accepted his offer and Romanus managed to tame the dragon with the help of God by making the sign of the cross.

Then, he burnt the dragon at the stake in the center of Rouen. But no matter how big the flames were, its neck and head firmly refused to burn.

Original Old City Hall, Toronto.

The people of Rouen mounted the dragon’s head on the new church as a protection from evil and to warn other dragons of what their fate would be if they decided to attack the city.

Although the story doesn’t sound credible now, Medieval French people were convinced of the dragon’s existence.

Gargoyle of the Notre Dame in Paris. Kin Lane. CC BY 2.0

Nowadays, the frightening sculptures usually with wide-open mouths still stand atop the churches and cathedrals.

Gothic Revival architecture

The most famous ones are probably the gargoyles of the Notre Dame in Paris, due to Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre-Dame.