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Gargoyle or Grotesque - Is there really a difference?

Updated: Oct 9, 2023

Now anybody who know me knows that I love myself a gargoyle. I cannot say why. My first exposure to the concept of a gargoyle was when watching a movie with my nan when I was about six. The movie was based on the novel Conjure Wife by Fritz Leiber. In the movie, a witch is able to animate a stone eagle from the parapets of a university by essentially editing polaroids of the eagle, manipulating the eagle's position in the images. The photo manipulation moves the stone eagle closer and closer to the man that had spurned her advances. Watching this professor trying to run away from an animated stone eagle was terrifying and etched itself deep into my memories.

This little insight into my childhood memories raises a couple of questions.

Firstly - Why the hell was my nan allowing me to watch horror movies when I was six. Well, it was kind of our thing. (She later bought the book and I still have it in my bedside table drawer, re-read it just a couple of months ago.) Blame her and my mum for my fascination with all things horror.

Secondly - How did my terror of an animated stone creature turn to fascination? Well, even at six I had to ask, why was the stone eagle up on the parapet in the first place?

And there you have it, simply put, inquiring minds need to know.

So. what exactly is a gargoyle. And why am I talking about them when the professor was attacked by a stone eagle?

Well, architecturally speaking, a gargoyle is a carved stone structure that is placed on the gutter of a building to divert rainwater away from the structure. They have no defined form and are often made up of a combination of animals both real and mythological. The gargoyle often had elongated necks or misshapen features to ensure the water fell a distance away from the walls; eagles wings, lion's tails, dragon's heads were often a part of their structure so you can see why a six-year-old confused the stone eagle for a gargoyle. And in my defense, technically speaking, if the stone eagle diverted water away from the building, it can be classified as a gargoyle. (A grotesque, if you were wondering is the same kind of sculpture without the ability to divert water.)

That's mildly interesting but not very mythological.

I agree. So, lets delve a little deeper.

Artwork - The Gargoyle - Petra M Costa - Oracle Deck - A Journey through Myth & Legend

There is a tale in medieval folklore of the dragon 'La Gargouille' that lived near the river Seine in France during the 7th Century. The people of Roeun greatly feared this dragon for its ability to pour water from its mouth creating floods and for its ability to breathe fire. This Dragon has said to have had a long, serpentine neck, membranous wing and an almost delicate head and snout. It an attempt to appease this dragon, the villagers provided the dragon with an annual human sacrifice most often criminals, but the dragon was believed to prefer maidens. (Didn't they all!) A Christian priest that was passing through offered to exorcise the dragon, if the people of Roeun built a church, and of course, agreed to be baptized, which they did. Fr. Romanus killed the dragon and burnt the body, yet somehow the head and neck refused to be touched by the fire. This unburnt head was then mounted on a wall to ward against evil.

But Gargoyles go back further than the 7th Century, they were used in architecture in Egypt, Greece and Rome with the oldest known gargoyle being over 13,000 years old and found in Turkey. The animals that inspired the gargoyles changed, often due to the religious acceptance of certain animals. Lions were used in the early days because of their association with the sun but as religious views changed and cats became associated with witchcraft, the dog rose to the fore, being seen as a loyal and faithful companion.

It is interesting that what were once seen as protectors, have now become demonized due mostly to a change in how modern religion perceives the creatures.

Personally, I have always loved a gargoyle and I can assure you that when they pop up in my stories, they will be faithful protectors, a little shy maybe, but I wouldn't take this natural timidity as an invitation to test their mettle.

I really wouldn't!

As always Nothing but love💜

Petra M Costa

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