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.

Mapping Technology Reveals 'Lost Cities' on National Geographic

Lin uses his iPad to visualize scanning data of a crusaders' fortress at the lagoon in Acre, Israel.
Lin uses his iPad to visualize scanning data of a crusaders' fortress at the lagoon in Acre, Israel.
Blakeway Productions/National Geographic

Imagine what Pompeii looked like before the lava hit, or Mayan pyramids before the jungle took over. In the past decade, scientists have been able to explore human settlements long since abandoned by using a new wave of accessible technology. Instead of needing an expensive plane and crew to fly aerial sensors, for example, explorers can mount them on cheaper drones and pilot them into previously unreachable areas. The resulting data can tell us more about the past, and the future, than ever before.

That’s the premise of Lost Cities with Albert Lin, a new TV series premiering on National Geographic on Sunday, October 20.

Lin, an engineer and National Geographic Explorer, uses cutting-edge tools to shed light on centuries-old cities in the most beautiful places on Earth. Ground-penetrating radar reveals buried structures without disturbing the landscape. A drone-mounted remote sensing method called LIDAR—short for "Light Detection and Ranging"—shoots lasers at objects to generate data, which Lin visualizes with 3D mapping software. The results suggest what the ruins probably looked like when they were new.

Albert Lin and crew in Peru
Thomas Hardy, Adan Choqque Arce, Joseph Steel, Duncan Lees, Albert Lin, and Alonso Arroyo launch the LIDAR drone at Wat'a in Peru.
National Geographic

“It’s like a window into a world that we’ve never had before,” Lin tells Mental Floss. “It’s shooting millions of laser pulses per second through a distance of air. By digitally removing the top layer of everything above the ground—trees, brush, cacti—you’re washing away the past. All of the sudden you’re left with these fingerprints—experiments in how we organized ourselves through time.”

For the six-episode series, Lin and the expert storytelling team were dispatched to the South Pacific, the Middle East, the Andes, the Arctic, and other destinations. Lin explains that while most of the sites are known to archaeologists, they’ve never been so precisely mapped in three-dimensional detail.

In the first episode, Lin travels to Nan Madol, an enigmatic complex of temples and other structures on the Micronesian island of Pohnpei. With the help of local researchers and indigenous leaders, Lin and the team scan the ruins and digitally erase trees, water, and forest undergrowth to unveil the complex's former grandeur.

“Technology and innovation have always been that gateway to go beyond the threshold, and see what’s around the corner,” Lin says. “Seeing these worlds for the first time since they were left, it’s almost like reversing the burning of the library of Alexandria. We can take the synthesis of knowledge of all these watershed moments of our human journey, and imagine a better future.”

Lost Cities With Albert Lin premieres Sunday, October 20 at 10/9c and resumes on Monday, October 21 at 10/9c on National Geographic.

What's the Difference Between Cement and Concrete?

Vladimir Kokorin/iStock via Getty Images
Vladimir Kokorin/iStock via Getty Images

Picture yourself walking down a city block. The sidewalk you follow may be obscured by shuffling feet and discarded gum, but it’s clearly made from something hard, smooth, and gray. What may be less clear is the proper name for that material: Is it concrete or cement? Is there even a real difference between the two words?

Though they’re often used interchangeably, concrete and cement describe different yet related elements of the blocks, flooring, and walls that make up many everyday structures. In simple terms, concrete is the name of the gray, gritty building material used in construction, and cement is an ingredient used in concrete.

Cement is a dry powder mixture that looks much different from the wet stuff poured out of so-called cement trucks. It’s made from minerals that have been crushed up and mixed together. Exactly what kind of minerals it’s made from varies: Limestone and clay are commonly used today, but anything from seashells to volcanic ash is suitable. After the ingredients are mixed together the first time, they’re fired in a kiln at 2642°F to form strong new compounds, then cooled, crushed, and combined again.

Cement
Cement
lior2/iStock via Getty Images

This mixture is useless on its own. Before it’s ready to be used in construction projects, the cement must be mixed with water and an aggregate, such as sand, to form a moldable paste. This substance is known as concrete. It fills whatever mold it’s poured into and quickly hardens into a solid, rock-like form, which is partly why it’s become the most widely-used building material on Earth.

So whether you’re etching your initials into a wet sidewalk slab, power-hosing your back patio, or admiring some Brutalist architecture, you’re dealing with concrete. But if you ever happen to be handling a chalky gray powder that hasn’t been mixed with water, cement is the correct label to use.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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