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The history of gargoyles is really rather simple, but includes all the things that make for a fun read. Sex, politics and religion. Simple, yes. Without meaning or depth? A definite NO. Gargoyles hold within their stony, ugly visages aspects of pagan gods, sex with demons and the pushing of conversion to the Catholic Church.

Gargoyles can be found as far back as ancient Greece. While these old stone heads served the same function as later gargoyles, the image usually resembled the gods of the ancient Greeks in their animal or beast form.

Gargoyles originally served one function. They were drain spouts for moving the rain away from the foundation of a building. The word itself comes from the French "gargouille" which means throat or pipe. A simple design and beginning, but as the gargoyle moved through history, it took on a political/religious purpose as well.

The Church had its own idea about how pagans entertained themselves. Images of imps and demons having sex with devil worshippers peppered the writings of the early churchmen. The devil was contrived as an image for Christians, not as an accurate representation of the pagan gods. The church leaders were convinced that pagans cavorted with incubus and succubus.

Kenneth G. Wilson (1923–).  The Columbia Guide to Standard American English.  1993.

succubus, incubus (nn.)

A succubus (plural: succubi or succubuses) is “a female demon who has sexual intercourse with a sleeping man.” Presumably the plural is rarely needed; hence the borrowed Latin plural, succubi, is more usual than the regular English one. An incubus is “a male demon who copulates with a sleeping woman.” Because this word is also used figuratively for “nightmares, haunting dreams, and visions,” the plural is fairly frequently encountered; hence the regular English plural, incubuses.


In an attempt to convert the heathens to the Catholic god, churches began using the gargoyles carved in images of demons, beasts and horned devils, thinking this might present the faith in a “familiar” and comfortable way.

Did it work? That would be a difficult question to answer. Considering the fact that pagan beliefs through the ages have had no basis in evil and devil worship, I’d have to say no. Pagans worship a horned god of the forest. The horns of a deer, elk or ram dominate his head. He is the consort to the Goddess and together they created the world. Pagans had nothing to do with the creation of the devil.

Gargoyles grace some of the most beautiful buildings and churches in the world, now often for appearance. Many still maintain their function as water pipes, carrying rainwater away from the building. Many historians and architects believe that it is the presence of the beasts and demons that have saved many historic buildings. Their protection of the foundation by moving the eroding waters may just be a contributing factor to the building’s preservation. Irony at its finest.

Despite the Church’s misinterpretation of non-Christian practices; despite the fact that gargoyles grew from religious misconceptions, their stony stare and protective stance perched high atop the most graceful of structures keep them a fascination for many people. They will continue to represent their otherworldly kind to human beings and hopefully stay strong against erosion and decay far into the future.

Holy Terrors
Gargoyles on Medieval Buildings

© J Thompson



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