A “gargoyle” is a decorative water spout in the form of a grotesque human or animal. The oldest gargoyle-like creation is a 13,000-year-old stone crocodile discovered in Turkey.
In architecture, a gargoyle is made with a spout designed to carry water from a roof and away from the side of a building, thus preventing rainwater from running down masonry walls and eroding the mortar. A trough is cut in the back of the gargoyle and rainwater typically exits through the open mouth.
The term originates from the French gargouille, which in English is likely to mean “throat” or “gullet”and similar words derived from the root gar, “to swallow,” which represented the gurgling sound of water.
When merely serving as an ornament, the correct term for such a sculpture is a grotesque, chimera, or boss. Just as with bosses and chimeras, gargoyles are said to protect what they guard, such as a church, from any evil or harmful spirits.
The ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Etruscans, and Romans all used animal-shaped waterspouts. During the 1100s, when gargoyles appeared in Europe, the Roman Catholic Church was converting many people. Most of the population was illiterate, so images were very important to convey ideas. Many early gargoyles depicted dragons, especially in France. In addition to serving as spouts for water, the gaping mouths of these gargoyles evoked the fearsome destructiveness of these legendary beasts, reminding the laity of the need for the church’s protection. Ah, yes, the protection racket.
The earliest known medieval gargoyles appear on Laon Cathedral (c. 1200–1220). Some of the more famous are the gargoyles of Notre-Dame de Paris. Although most have grotesque features, the term gargoyle has come to include all types of images. Some were depicted as monks, or combinations of real animals and people. Sometimes gargoyles illustrated pagan beliefs to reflect the unique cultural history of the community around the cathedral.
From the early 1700s, few buildings using gargoyles were constructed. Some people found them frightening, and sometimes heavy ones fell off, causing damage. In 1724, the London Building Act made the use of downpipes compulsory in all new construction.
In the 1980s, the Washington National Cathedral held a contest for kids to design a new gargoyle. Thirteen-year-old Christopher Rader proposed Darth Vader and his design was one of the winners. Lord Vader is now mounted on the cathedral’s “dark side” north wall.
Good choice! Darth Vader is nearly as scary as a dragon.