10 Fearsome Facts about Gargoyles

Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

They conjure images of hideous, brooding creatures perched high above the cities and villages of the world. The most terrifying ones look as though they might break from their stone moorings and take flight. But gargoyles, it turns out, are full of surprises. Read on to learn the origin of their name, their very functional purpose, and what makes a gargoyle different from a grotesque.

1. THEY SERVE A PRACTICAL PURPOSE.

Gargoyle
Fred Tanneau/AFP/Getty Images

When gargoyles began appearing on churches throughout Europe in the 13th century, they served as decorative water spouts, engineered to preserve stone walls by diverting the flow of rainwater outward from rooftops. This function, technically speaking, distinguishes gargoyles from other stone beasts like grotesques and bosses, although these days the term encompasses all sorts of decorative creature carvings.

2. THE NAME COMES FROM A DRAGON-SLAYING LEGEND.

The word gargoyle derives from the French gargouille, meaning "throat." This would appear to take its inspiration from the statues' water-siphoning gullets, but in fact the name comes from the French legend of "La Gargouille," a fearsome dragon that terrorized the inhabitants of the town of Rouen. For centuries, according to the story, the dragon swallowed up ships and flooded the town, until around 600 BCE, when a priest named Romanus came along and agreed to vanquish the beast in exchange for the townspeople's conversion to Christianity. Romanus tamed the dragon by making the sign of the cross, then led it into town where it was burned at the stake. The creature’s head, however, wouldn’t burn, so the townspeople cut it off and affixed it to their church. The gargouille’s head became a ward against evil and a warning to other dragons.

3. THEY WERE MEANT TO INSPIRE FEAR IN PARISHIONERS.


Fred Tanneau/AFP/Getty Images

Because most Medieval Europeans were illiterate, the clergy needed visual representations of the horrors of hell to drive people to the sanctuary of the church. Placing gargoyles on the building’s exterior reinforced the idea that evil dwelt outside the church, while salvation dwelt within. "How better to enforce church attendance and docility than by providing a daily reminder of the horrors to come," wrote Gary Varner in his book, Gargoyles, Grotesques and Green Men: Ancient Symbolism in European and American Architecture.

4. THEY ALSO BROUGHT PAGANS TO CHURCH.

Churches would also model gargoyles after the creatures worshipped by pagan tribes, thinking this would make their houses of worship appear more welcoming to them. It was a bit of clever marketing that worked, according to scholar Darlene Trew Crist. "Churches grew in number and influence as the pagan belief system and many of its images were absorbed into Christianity," she wrote in American Gargoyles: Spirits in Stone.

5. THEY DATE BACK TO ANCIENT EGYPT.

Although the name gargoyle dates back just a few centuries, the practice of crafting decorative, animal-themed drain spouts reaches back several millennia. The ancient Egyptians had a thing for lions, as did the Romans and the Greeks. The oldest gargoyle-like creation is a 13,000-year-old stone crocodile discovered in Turkey.

6. NOTRE DAME'S GARGOYLES ARE FAIRLY RECENT CREATIONS.

gargoyle of the Notre Dame Cathedral
Pablo Porciuncula/AFP/Getty Images)

The world’s most famous gargoyles, and the ones that most influenced the popular wings-and-horns image of the creatures, are found on Paris’s Notre Dame Cathedral. Although the cathedral was constructed in the 13th century, the gargoyles were part of an extensive restoration project in the mid 1800s. Conceived by architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc and sculptor Victor Pyanet, the gargoyles have little in common with Medieval gargoyles, scholars contend, and were intended to represent the time period rather than recreate it.

7. PITTSBURGH IS A HOTBED FOR GARGOYLES.

In the 19th century, the Steel City embraced the Gothic architecture revival that swept across America. Many of its Gothic churches, government buildings, and other edifices remain, along with their iconic gargoyles. All told, Pittsburgh features more than 20 authentic gargoyles, and hundreds of grotesques. Many of them are featured in the city's "Downtown Dragons" tour run by the History and Landmarks Foundation.

8. SOME WERE FASHIONED AFTER BUILDERS AND CHURCH ELDERS.


Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Cologne Cathedral in Germany features a gargoyle fashioned after the church’s longest-serving council member, while at the Cathedrale Saint Jean in Lyon, France you can see a gargoyle modeled after the building’s renovation construction manager, Ahmed Benzizine. Because nothing says "thank you" like a hideous stone creature carved in your likeness.

9. A FRENCH CATHEDRAL SWAPPED ITS GARGOYLES FOR "GREMLINS."

During the restoration of Chapel of Bethlehem back in the early '90s, sculptor Jean-Louis Boistel decided to replace the building’s crumbling gargoyles with a few pop-culture icons. This included Gizmo and a gremlin from the movie Gremlins, an Alien xenomorph, and a robot from the popular anime UFO Robot Grendizer. Many locals were put off by Boistel’s creations, which are technically grotesques, but enough young movie fans got behind the "geek chapel" idea to get it approved.

10. THERE'S A DARTH VADER GARGOYLE IN WASHINGTON D.C.

Back in the '80s, the Washington National Cathedral held a contest for kids to design its newest gargoyle. Coming on the heels of the Star Wars trilogy, of course someone proposed a Darth Vader gargoyle. The cathedral, which had already installed some off-the-wall gargoyles and grotesques during its extensive restoration work, named 13-year-old Christopher Rader's design as one of its winners, and in 1986 put Lord Vader high up on the cathedral’s "dark side" north wall. It can be difficult to spot, but the cathedral offers this handy guide.

This Allegedly Haunted House Came From a Sears Catalog

iStock.com/Reimphoto
iStock.com/Reimphoto

Most haunted houses have a dark history. The Winchester Mystery House in California was built by a widow trying to appease vengeful spirits; the Lizzie Borden house was the site of one of New England's most infamous murders. The backstory of an abandoned structure in Estancia, New Mexico, however, is far less disturbing than it is bizarre. According to WISH-TV, it was ordered from a Sears catalog.

In the early 20th century, Sears catalogs were a popular source of not just home goods, but actual homes. Between 1908 and 1940, the company shipped anywhere from 70,000 to 75,000 prefabricated house kits in roughly 450 styles to buyers across the country.

One of these customers was a lawyer named Fred Ayers. He assembled his mail-order home in Estancia, New Mexico in the 1920s, and today it sits abandoned on the side of Highway 55. The site attracts people from all around looking to snap a picture of the dilapidated structure, and its reputation for being "haunted" makes it an especially popular roadside attraction around Halloween.

Despite the unconventional construction method, Sears's pre-fab homes were built to last. Many people have reached out to the company archives to say they're still living in a Sears home more than a century after it was erected. And with Sears filing for bankruptcy recently, the Estancia house appears to have outlasted its maker.


View this post on Instagram

A post shared by KRQE News 13 (@krqe) on

[h/t WISH-TV]

Home of John Proctor, Salem Witch Trials Victim, Hits the Market in Massachusetts

Paul Aquipel
Paul Aquipel

It's not too late to secure an epic location for your Halloween party: as CBS Boston reports, the former home of John Proctor, a victim of the Salem Witch Trials, has just hit the market for $600,000

Constructed in 1638, the building was the home of accused witch John Proctor (the inspiration for the main character in Arthur Miller's The Crucible) leading up to his conviction and hanging in 1692. It had a Salem address at the time of the trial, but is now located in Peabody, Massachusetts.

Today, the home is a recognized as an official historic site by the Peabody Historical Society. In addition to its significance as a local landmark, the 4000-square-foot Colonial home offers six bedrooms, seven fireplaces, and an in-ground swimming pool. The building has been refurbished over the years, but parts of the original structure, including some wooden beams, can still be seen.

The house may not be haunted, but its red doors and black exterior are appropriately spooky. If a morbid private buyer doesn't snatch the home off the market first, the Peabody Historical Society is considering purchasing it and opening it to the public.

Interior of Colonial home.
Paul Aquipel

Interior of Colonial home.
Paul Aquipel

Interior of Colonial home.
Paul Aquipel

[h/t CBS Boston]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER