The history of
gargoyles is really rather simple, but includes all the things that make
for a fun read. Sex, politics and religion. Simple, yes. Without meaning
or depth? A definite NO. Gargoyles hold within their stony, ugly visages
aspects of pagan gods, sex with demons and the pushing of conversion to
the Catholic Church.
Gargoyles can be found
as far back as ancient Greece. While these old stone heads served the
same function as later gargoyles, the image usually resembled the gods
of the ancient Greeks in their animal or beast form.
served one function. They were drain spouts for moving the rain away
from the foundation of a building. The word itself comes from the French
"gargouille" which means throat or pipe. A simple design and
beginning, but as the gargoyle moved through history, it took on a
political/religious purpose as well.
The Church had its own
idea about how pagans entertained themselves. Images of imps and demons
having sex with devil worshippers peppered the writings of the early
churchmen. The devil was contrived as an image for Christians, not as an
accurate representation of the pagan gods. The church leaders were
convinced that pagans cavorted with incubus and succubus.
Kenneth G. Wilson (1923–).
The Columbia Guide to Standard American English.
succubus (plural: succubi or succubuses) is “a female demon who has
sexual intercourse with a sleeping man.” Presumably the plural is
rarely needed; hence the borrowed Latin plural, succubi, is more usual
than the regular English one. An incubus is “a male demon who
copulates with a sleeping woman.” Because this word is also used
figuratively for “nightmares, haunting dreams, and visions,” the
plural is fairly frequently encountered; hence the regular English
In an attempt to
convert the heathens to the Catholic god, churches began using the
gargoyles carved in images of demons, beasts and horned devils, thinking
this might present the faith in a “familiar” and comfortable way.
Did it work? That would
be a difficult question to answer. Considering the fact that pagan
beliefs through the ages have had no basis in evil and devil worship,
I’d have to say no. Pagans worship a horned god of the forest. The
horns of a deer, elk or ram dominate his head. He is the consort to the
Goddess and together they created the world. Pagans had nothing to do
with the creation of the devil.
Gargoyles grace some of
the most beautiful buildings and churches in the world, now often for
appearance. Many still maintain their function as water pipes, carrying
rainwater away from the building. Many historians and architects believe
that it is the presence of the beasts and demons that have saved many
historic buildings. Their protection of the foundation by moving the
eroding waters may just be a contributing factor to the building’s
preservation. Irony at its finest.
Despite the Church’s
misinterpretation of non-Christian practices; despite the fact that
gargoyles grew from religious misconceptions, their stony stare and
protective stance perched high atop the most graceful of structures keep
them a fascination for many people. They will continue to represent
their otherworldly kind to human beings and hopefully stay strong
against erosion and decay far into the future.
Gargoyles on Medieval Buildings
© J Thompson