Here's a little piece I wrote a while ago:
It's past Beltane. The harsh season of the God has given way to the warmth and sun of the Goddess's reign. The circle of life is complete once more. The Otherworld Gates of Death have closed, and we can relax alone in the cool shade of a stately college hall, an ornamental arch, or even a turn-of-the-century church.
The shade suddenly feels a little darker, the atmosphere a bit fey, and you don't feel as alone as you thought. You look side to side to see empty lawn or street, you look down at the totally normal concrete or grass,... and then, you look up. It's eyes peer down at you. It's mouth grins in a toothy smiles, or gapes in a round, eternal, howl. It's stone wings spread over your head as it watches your every move. Is it a demon? Is it a dark soul, something left behind when the Gates of Death clanged shut?
Relax! Take a breath! You're in the presence of gargoyles, and they mean you no harm!
Classical gargoyles have been described as “carved, grotesque stone spouts” to divert water from a roof. That ugly beastie hanging over your head is part of a gutter system! Well, at least that's how it all started out.
The name “gargoyle” comes from the French word “gargouille”, meaning “throat” or “gullet”. It is related to the Latin word “gutgulio” meaning “to swallow”, and shares the same root as our English word “gargle”.
Even though we find most gargoyles as part of medieval buildings, there are some older examples. In ancient Egypt, gargoyles removed water from the roofs of temples where sacred vessels were washed. In Greece and Pompeii, gargoyle-like lions diverted water from the rooftops of sacred buildings. Perhaps the best known gargoyles in the world are found in Paris at the Cathedral of Notre Dame. But that's not the only thing lurking on its stone walls. It also has it shares of “chimeras” - figures similar to gargoyles which do NOT divert water. The term “gargoyle” is commonly used for both, however.
Gargoyles can be hideous monsters, caricatures of real people ( such as disliked monks, and clergy), or comical animals. They appear on the sides of contemporary buildings and churches as well, such as the Chrysler Building in NYC, and the National Cathedral in Washington DC. In fact, in the 1990's when renovations were being done, the cathedral held a competition. They wanted children to submit designs for the new gargoyles. One of the winners was the head of Darth Vader! He is now part of the western wing of the building exterior.
In Europe, the trend continues. Here are some from France:
And a particularly naughty one from Germany:
Why have gargoyles in the first place? Your house or apartment/flat has gutters, no doubt, and YOU don't have huge, winged critters spitting down on YOU. Well, it all started with the legend of Saint Romain, a French bishop. He is said to have saved his village from a dragon named “gargouille”. He tamed it, and led it into town where it was slain. The head was hung on the church wall. Thereafter, it was considered lucky to carve his visage on the walls of churches.
That's the legend, but there have been many more reasons put forth for their existence. Gargoyles are said to frighten any evil from the premises, much as jack o' lanterns do at Samhain. They were suppose to show sinners what awaits them in the next world, if they did not repent. Some of the comical figures could even be priests or officials who were slow to pay the stonemasons!
Some figures and faces may even be of pagan origin. The Green Man – a male face composed of leaves or other foliage, or a face with vines coming from its mouth – may have been deliberately carved into Christian churches by pagan artisans, especially if that church was built on a site sacred to the Old Religion (as many were).
Today, we can find gargoyles anywhere, from bank buildings to the institutes of learning. Here, for instance, are a few from the hallowed halls of Princeton University in New Jersey:
Now a days, you can have gargoyles of your own. There are shops that sell nothing BUT gargoyle reproductions in every size from lawn statues to key chains. Many specialty furniture and décor catalogs, such as Design Toscano, carry a wide and unusual selection.
Enjoy the Beltane season; it's a lovely time of year, when things bloom and beauty surrounds us. But if you happen to look up, and see a gargoyle leering down, know that he is just doing his job, standing guard until darker times return.