What are Gargoyles?

Q. What are gargoyles, and why are they found on churches?

A. A gargoyle is a waterspout (usually made of stone) that projects from a roof gutter or upper part of a building to throw water clear of walls or foundations. It minimizes water erosion. The term is derived (as is the word “gargle”) from the French gargouille, meaning “throat.” Some gargoyles are undecorated, but the memorable ones — most popular in the Gothic-style churches of the Middle Ages — are carved into fanciful, often grotesque, shapes. They may portray humans, beasts, human-beast hybrids, animal hybrids (chimeras) or demons. By extension, any similar figure adorning a building has come to be called a gargoyle. But technically, if it’s not a waterspout, it should be called a grotesque, not a gargoyle.

We don’t really know for sure why so many medieval churches are adorned with these bizarre-looking characters. Scholars have suggested various theories:

• They reminded churchgoers that the Enemy of their souls lurks outside the holy place, ready to tempt them to sin.

• They were intimidating “guardians” to frighten away demons.

• They were pre-Christian pagan symbols, “baptized” for Christian use.

• They were whimsical or mischievous, a form of medieval humor.

• The vulgar ones may have been carved by the artisans as retribution for mistreatment by their bosses.