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.

Dreaming of Spending a Night in a Lighthouse? There’s a Website for That

Earth Trotter Photos/iStock via Getty Images
Earth Trotter Photos/iStock via Getty Images

Two hundred years ago, lighthouses to guide ships away from dangerous coastlines were a common sight. While lighthouses are rarely used for their original purpose today, many of the structures are still standing. If you're looking for an unusual way to celebrate National Lighthouse Day—today, August 6—consider booking a night in one of the dozens of decommissioned lighthouses across the globe that are now used for lodging.

BookaLighthouse.com is like Airbnb for lighthouses. To plan your seaside vacation, first choose the location you'd like to visit: the website's database features lighthouses on four continents including North America.

Once you've decided where you'd like to stay, Book a Lighthouse brings up all the available lighthouse options in the area. In Michigan, you and up to 13 guests can stay at a lighthouse-turned-bed-and-breakfast on the shore of Lake Superior. On the other side of the Atlantic, you'll find a lighthouse on its own island 15 minutes off the Swedish mainland. Rates range from as low as $38 to around $450 per night, and amenities like breakfast, sheets, and towels are often included.

The website is a great resource if you have your heart set on a nautical getaway, but it's not the only service that features lighthouse vacation homes. A quick search for "lighthouse" on Airbnb brings up listings around the world. And if you're looking for a more permanent situation, the U.S. government regularly sells old lighthouses to private citizens for low prices.

8 Frank Lloyd Wright Buildings Join the List of UNESCO World Heritage Sites

Mariano Mantel Follow, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0
Mariano Mantel Follow, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

The UNESCO World Heritage Center recognizes sites of great cultural, historical, or scientific importance, from manmade cities like Venice to natural wonders like the Great Barrier Reef. A group of new locations honored this month aren't nearly as old as some other sites on the list, but in just the past century or so, they've made a huge impact. During its 43rd annual session, the World Heritage Committee elected to add eight buildings designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, the American architect who pioneered the Prairie School movement in the 20th century.

The Frank Lloyd Wright structures joining the UNESCO list include Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona; Hollyhock House in Los Angeles; the Frederick C. Robie House in Chicago; Unity Temple in Oak Park, Illinois; the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City; Fallingwater in Mill Run, Pennsylvania; the Herbert and Katherine Jacobs House in Madison, Wisconsin; and Taliesin in Spring Green, Wisconsin. Each building was constructed between 1905 and 1938, and they represent just a handful of the more than 400 Wright works still standing today.

The group makes up a single World Heritage Site known as "The 20th-Century Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright." Together, the buildings are the 24th World Heritage Site recognized in the U.S., accompanying such places as Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Everglades National Park in Florida, and the Grand Canyon in Arizona. They're not the first example of modern architecture to be added to the list, though. The Sydney Opera House, the city of Brasilia, and the Bauhaus School in Germany are also World Heritage Sites.

According to organization's website, adding landmarks to the UNESCO World Heritage list "helps raise awareness among citizens and governments for heritage preservation," and that "greater awareness leads to a general rise in the level of the protection and conservation given to heritage properties." Countries that house heritage sites are also eligible for funding from UNESCO to preserve them. All of the sites included "The 20th-Century Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright" are already protected as National Historic Landmarks, and many are open to visitors.

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