A gargoyle is a stone figure that forms part of the gutter system of medieval cathedrals. It is a spout, in the shape of some grotesque creature, that carries rainwater away from the walls of the building. The word is from the Old French gargouille, or throat, and is a reference to the water passing through the throat of the stone figure. The same root gives us the modern noun and verb gargle.
From the c.1386 century poem, Saint Erkenwald (the extant manuscript, BL Harley 2250, dates to sometime before 1500):
Hit was a throghe of thykke stone...With gargeles garnysht aboute, all of gray marbre.
(it was a tomb of thick stone…with gargoyles garnished about, all of gray marble.)
According to myth, in the 7th century a dragon, named Gargouille rose from the waters of the Seine River in France. Unlike the typical dragons of mythology, this one did not breathe fire, but rather was a water dragon. The monster proceeded to lay waste to the countryside around Paris by drowning it. St. Romain, the Archbishop of Rouen, accompanied only by a condemned prisoner, set out to stop the beast. Upon confronting the monster, the saint formed a cross with his two index fingers, taming Gargouille. The dragon was led back to Paris, where it was slain and burned. The head, however, was saved and mounted on a building. This legend supposedly gave rise to the architectural practice of designing waterspouts to look like monsters.
Copyright 1997-2013, by David Wilton