The name gargoyle is derived from the French word “Gargouille” and the Latin “Gurgulio”, both meaning throat. When most people think of Gargoyles they imagine hideous carved stone creatures, usually situated on the top edges of medieval buildings, mostly churches and other places of worship to ward off evil spirits. However, they originally had a much more practical use. The use of Gargoyles actually dates back to Ancient Greece or before where they were used as waterspouts to funnel rain water off the roof and out and over the edge of buildings, keeping it clear of the sides of the building in the process, in order to prevent it from eroding the mortar and damaging the structure. There are 39 of these waterspouts remaining from the original 102 used on the Temple of Zeus, they were crafted from marble and were all carved in the shape of lion’s heads. However due to the weight, many snapped off over time and had to be replaced. There is also evidence of the use of gargoyles in Ancient Egypt, also typically in the form of a lion’s head. It seemed the ancient world favoured animal shaped gargoyles, with Romans and Etruscans also utilising carved waterspouts. Lions in particular were most popular; as the lion represented the sun, an ancient symbol of deity. One gargoyle was not of much use, buildings would need multiple waterspouts in order to divide the flow of water away from the roof.
The use of Gargoyles, especially on religious buildings became more prevalent in the 12th century, and their purpose evolved into more than just a practical devise to protect the physical wellbeing of a building. At the time the Roman Catholic Church was growing ever more influential throughout Europe, converting many Pagan populations, who for the most part were illiterate, so the use of images and symbols was essential for conveying ideas and beliefs. Many of the creatures used as gargoyles had mystical properties in the medieval world. Dogs, for example symbolised loyalty, and intelligence, and therefore made the ideal guardian for a building and its occupants, they also had their faults, and were particularly prone to greed, a reminder of the temptation of the devil to sin. The popular lion carving also served to represent the sin of pride. The wolf, although a feared creature in that period, represented a leader of the pack, protecting its members, much as a priest would spiritually protect their flock. Eagles were admired for their ability to see things which were very far away, and were used as a metaphor for foresight. The serpent, representing the sin of envy and the struggle of good and evil from the story of Adam and Eve, thought to be immortal, they promoted the idea that the fight against the temptation of the devil would go on for all eternity. Goats were also commonly used, although they had two very different viewpoints in medieval times, on one side the goat represented the ability to survive in the hardest of situations, on the other it represented the sin of lust, and is the animal most associated with the devil. Finally the monkey, representing the sin of sloth, the use of the monkey was to remind the people of what a human would become if they went awry, they were viewed a stupid creatures whose intelligence was misrepresented as cunning. The idea behind the use of these creatures and their meanings was to enforce the need to come to church, to remind the people that the day of judgement is ever near, and they would find safety and sanctuary inside these holy buildings.
The use of gargoyles also extended to medieval castles, using carvings of frightening, ugly faces, and mythical creatures to intimidate and have a terrifying psychological effect on the populations surrounding these elaborate fortresses. For this reason there were carvings added to buildings without the function as a waterspout, technically these are not gargoyles since
they do not have a throat from which to spout water, they are referred to as Grotesques, and were also used inside buildings as ornamentation. There was also another more peculiar type of gargoyle known as the “defecating” or “mooning gargoyle”, although rare, there are examples still in existence today. A nude, defecating man dating from the late thirteenth century appears on the side of Cathedral of Saint-Lazare in Autun, France. Whether he is intended to drive evil from the church, or is simply a little piece of mischief thought up by a medieval mind we don’t know, he does not have a prominent place on the rooftop, and is tucked away high on the south side of the cathedral. There are other examples of these somewhat naughty gargoyles in Germany, England and more in France.
The use of gargoyles as waterspouts was common up until the 18th century, when downpipes and guttering became a more popular method of water drainage. In 1724 an act of parliament made the use of downpipes compulsory on all new constructions. Gargoyles were no longer needed for their practical purpose. Although technically Grotesques and not Gargoyles due to the lack of waterspout, they were still widely used as decoration on 19th and early 20th century buildings.