Libris Monstrum #29: Gargoyles
Have you ever had a monster that just stuck out to you for some reason? One that just sort-of keeps coming to your mind as something that has a lot more potential or possibility than it generally gets. For me, that monster is the gargoyle. These are mean, devilish looking elementals or constructs. They have horns and wings. All too often I just see them as evil guardian statues though. There is much more we could do with them, so much more! In order to explore that possibility we should first understand about the origin of these things in the real world.
If you think of real world gargoyles you will probably get an image of a huge Gothic cathedral first. Sitting atop that cathedral, amidst all the other decorations and elaborate designs, will be the familiar hunched forms of gargoyles. But why are these things burned into our minds like that? Probably because it is a pretty recognizable object and Gothic architecture is a fairly present form in our consumption of media and entertainment. The thing is, the gargoyle is a little more widespread than that. The word stems from, among other words, the French gargouille which translates to something around throat or gullet. These monstrous looking constructions are actually waterspouts. Gutters as we might know them today aren’t what they were in earlier times and folks who construct buildings that could afford statuary certainly wouldn’t want rain water just running off in sheets. Thus, we have gargoyles as an example of water directing.
Some folks use the word a little too much to refer to other monstrous decorations. Grotesques are the more accurate word for fiendish looking sculptures that appear on the outside of buildings and if we are talking about fantastic creatures these might be referred to as chimeras. Though, they don’t have to be a chimera to be a chimera, if you know what I mean. Still, the nomenclature is regularly misused but there is an easy way to remember. Another source for the word gargoyle is the sound that they make as water goes through them or even just the sight of it: gargle. Gargoyles gargle because they need water. If it isn’t a water spout it, technically, isn’t a gargoyle.
Okay, but where does the greater concept come from. There have been gargoyles for a very long time, but the concept we see today stems from a French legend. The Gargouille was a monster that wrecked havoc once upon a time. Much like the classic image of a dragon, the Gargouille had bat-like wings and breathed fire. Honestly, if you saw such a creature that the gargoyles stem from you would say dragon 100%. Eventually, as all stories like this go, someone finally defeated the beast. Saint Romanus was the man to do the job, though accounts vary on how it happened. Once the beast was slain it was brought back to civilization and burned. All of it destroyed save the head. This was placed upon the church, a sign to protect it from evil spirits and monsters. Now is it starting to get familiar? This is the origin for some of our own ideas about the gargoyle. As with so many things gargoyles of architecture have more than one purpose. They are made in the fashion they are for two reasons: to direct rain water and to drive off evil spirits.
Gargoyles are not the only structures that decorate ancient buildings. Such designs are common throughout history but we will look at just a couple. In Asia there are two similar structures. The first of these I mention due to the role it plays in weather protection. While not a waterspout, the onigawara is a stone structure to help prevent rain from leaking into a roof. These sit at the peak of the roof and aid in preventing rain from entering at the peak. At the outer edges the onigawara is carved into elaborate designs. Some floral or intricate reliefs, but others depicted the visage of an ogre or oni. These remind me much of gargoyles or grotesques and I wonder if the period that such designs were used was elicited by a desire for protection from evil spirits.
The other structure is one that regularly appears in Western media as the foo dog, though that name is inaccurate. These statues are more accurately called shishi and are the guardian lions of China. While you might recognize them from all sorts of places like supermarkets or restaurants, they were originally placed outside of important buildings. High ranking families, government officials, and government buildings would have a pair of these flanking the entryways. These lions were meant as protective guardians to the building and carry with them a lot of symbolism. The pair represent female and male, yin and yang. The items they hold are symbols themselves but, interesting to the protective nature, the female guards the living within and the male guards the structure itself. Looking into variations of the carvings and styles reveal only more and more symbolism and ideas. The guardian lions are a very interesting example of sculptures from around the world with mythological intent.
I can’t end today without mentioning Disney’s Gargoyles. This show was during one of the best times in Disney television animation. I am sure many around my age will agree and have fond memories of the show. The reason I mention it, though, is because of the way they are represented. If you look in any given D&D manual you will find gargoyles to be horrid creatures, serving villains and protecting places like the Temple of Elemental Evil. However, the role of the gargoyle is protection AGAINST evil and that is exactly how they are represented in the cartoon. These gargoyles came to life every night when the sun went down and fought off dark forces that had not been around in centuries. It was an excellent take and one I think can and should be emulated at the table. Why do so many things have to be evil in the Monster Manuals?
When we come back to gargoyles I am going to go through some of their other representations, especially at the table. We will take a look at Ogremoch and maybe some examples of gargoyle-adjacent creatures. Any thoughts on gargoyles or a franchise that represents them in an interesting way?? Let me know in the comments below.