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Things That Go Bump in the Night–G is for Gargoyles

The word gargoyle comes from the French word gargouille which means gullet or to gargle. In architecture, gargoyles are grotesque ornaments, which serve as waterspouts. The term gargoyle in architecture refers to any such device—no matter what it depicts. Strictly speaking, the term grotesque in architecture refers to ornaments, which do not serve as water spouts. 

Gargoyles are supposed to protect the building from evil spirits.

In a legend dating back to the 7th century, a nasty dragon named La Gargouille lived spouting gargoylenear the river Seine.  He was your typical fire-breathing, ship-sinking, maiden-eating kind of dragon and kept things stirred up in the area by setting hayricks on fire at inconvenient times, carrying off the odd toddler, and sinking any ship he saw.   The villagers decided it might be a good idea to try to appease La Gargouille and, with typical villager mentality, they thought the best way would be to sacrifice someone. A dismaying lack of volunteers prompted the city elders to think outside the box. They struck upon a way to kill two birds, so to speak. Every year, they chose one convict from the local prison as a sacrifice; thus, appeasing La Gargouille and giving would-be criminals something to chew over.

This had gone on for some time when a brave priest from Rouen offered to slay the dragon if everyone in town agreed to be baptized. Apparently, the area was a hotbed of pagan activity back in the day. Oh, and they had to build a church in the priest’s honor, too.

A nice one.

With a shrubbery.

The convicts were the first in line to be baptized, but the city elders had to think it over for a bit. Eventually, they agreed. The priest took the latest convict chosen as the sacrifice along as bait a helper.

La Gargouille, whogargoyle dragon 1 was taking a mid-morning nap in preparation for a little late-night marauding he planned for the evening, didn’t know what hit him. The priest and the convict cut off the dragon’s head and, with the entire town in attendance –including the relieved convicts—burned his body in the middle of town. The head, being accustomed to spouting flames, refused to ignite.

When the citizens built the church, they tacked the head on the roof where it served as a graphic reminder of the evil lurking out there in the wild and that only salvation of the church could keep everybody safe. Visiting church dignitaries liked the motif and copied it throughout the land.Notre Dame gargoyle

On a rainy day not long after, a monk who was wandering around the church grounds beneath the head received a good dousing by water draining off the roof through the mouth of the dragon’s head. Being a frustrated engineer, he put two and two together, derived the square root, divided by a score, and came up with a handy way to divert water from the roof of the church and prevent those annoying drips that kept putting out the candles in the vestibule.

As the Middle Ages gave way to the Age of Discovery, dragons ceased to seem so scary. Gargoyles became a generic term for any water-diverting sculpture. The dragon motif was replaced by less forbidding and even whimsical images.
gargoyle lion


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Tomorrow—Hanoko San—a Japanese Toilet Ghost

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