September 28, 2023

Gargoyle Mouthwash


Let's talk gargoyles boys and girls, yes, those strange faces in stone telling us to behave or we'll get a massive growth on our heads.
In the apartment I lived in as a kid, there was an old building across the street with gargoyles on the top floor, and I would sit for hours looking up at the strange beings looking back at me, some were crying, others laughing, and if I shook my head fast enough, they moved. Of course, then I was giving ADHD medicine and stopped staring out the window so much. 
Later I learned that the building across the street was built by a wealthy businessman in the early 20th century who believed putting gargoyles on the ledges would bring him good luck.  The logic didn't work because the building opened in 1929 a week before the  Great Depression, and he subsequently jumped from the building.  
The faces of the gargoyles are rumored to be the faces the owner made as he jumped to his death from the building after losing everything he had in the stock crash.  You hear stories like these all the time, and probably the reason you never see gargoyles on buildings anymore.

The history of gargoyles starts in a town in France outside of Paris called Rouen.  The story tells of a dragon that lived in the Sene river and terrorized the town by eating people along the river banks and burning ships trying to pass.  The dragon's name... you guessed it...  Gargouille.

The legend goes that around the year 600 AD a Christian monk named Romanus came to town and defeated the dragon and delivered the dead beast to the town's people who immediately  decided to burn it.  The body of the dragon went up in flames quickly, but the head and neck wouldn't burn.  Taking this as a sign from God, the towns people mounded the head and neck of the dragon on a village wall as a reminder of God’s great power.  This practice soon spread from town to town and the neck and head of Gargouille became the model of today's gargoyle.

The word Gargoyle comes from the French word Gargouille and so it should be no surprise that the oldest gargoyles standing today are found in France.  These gargoyles are on Cathedrals and are a part of what is called Scripture in Stone.  According to most scholars, these gargoyles were placed on religious structures to preach the gospels to the illiterate and warring classes by putting the fear of hell in them.  Others believe the gargoyles are demons of lost souls placed there to scare away greater demons.  Regardless of the reason, all the great cathedrals of France have them. 

The two greatest of these cathedrals are Notre Dame and Chartres.  The gargoyles of Notre Dame are rumored to take flight after dark and watch over the cafes of Paris.  The gargoyles of Chartres are said to watch over the countryside to scare away oncoming threats. 

As I have already mentioned, the word Gargoyle is from the Old French word Gargouille which means throat.  If you look at most of the old Gargoyles you'll see they have long necks with a head at the end in the form of a long spout.  The English words gurgle and gargle share the same French root as the word gargoyle.  This really makes sense because in architecture any drainpipe leaning off the side of a building is called a gargoyle.  Conversely,  if a stone carving does not carry water but does have a horrible face or image on it architects call it a grotesques.

Ostara (1901) by Johannes Gehrts. Spring feasts were held to honour the Anglo-Saxon goddess Eostre/Ostara.

Although gargoyles and grotesques placed on cathedrals are believed to be of Christian origin, a closer look does tell another story.  A closer look tells the story of how a winter's solstice celebration became the birth of a savoir; and, how a Spring feast once held to honor the goddess Eostre became the resurrection Easter Sunday meal.  Stonemasons who had passed from being an apprentice to a journeyman knew this and so worked out their own ideas in their carvings.  They were, in a sense, independent artist and so were free to do pretty much as they liked.  So why then did they choose to place so many pagan images on the religious buildings of their day?  Could it be they still held onto the old beliefs in secret? After much research, I for one believe the carvings were a message for those with eyes to see.  A prime example of this are the many gargoyles of The Green Man, also known as The Jack in the Green, who was the pagan god of tree worship and can be found in the many grotesques wearing crowns of leaves and branches.

Another common image from paganism that is found on many cathedrals is the multi-face grotesques that represents Diana the virgin goddess and protector of childbirth.  Historically, Diana made up a triad with two other Roman deities: Egeria the water nymph, and Virbius, the woodland god.  These three-faces of the gods to the cults were once worshiped as the Christian holy trinity, that is, until the Pope realized their true meaning and so had the practice banned. Still, the Pope left the pagan symbols on the cathedrals as to not upset the will of the people; seems, even the Pope had a thing for our pagan past. 

So, along with diverting rainwater and scaring off evil spirits, gargoyles seemed to be a way for the artist who placed them there to tell the story of the old religion; the old Pagan religion before the Christian church came along and gave the town's people the choice to convert to the new God, or, well... die.  Knowing this, it's easy to see that these gargoyles are pagan messengers reminding us of the truth that religion can not be ordered by a king, but must be grown from within or else, well, it's gargoyle mouthwash.

~~ Dr. TV Boogie

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