Field Guide to Gargoyles

Field Guide to Gargoyles, Part One: What is a Gargoyle?

With their strange appearances and mysterious meanings, it’s difficult not to feel fascinated by those weird and wonderful things we call gargoyles. However, basic facts about their origins, terminology, and interpretation can be difficult to obtain. Because this topic generates much more popular interest than scholarly inquiry, the information most readily available online tends to be questionable, and superstitious stories about gargoyles generally get more attention than the actual facts. It’s difficult to know what to believe. (Just google the word “gargoyles” and check out the wild stuff that comes up!)

In this five-part series, Field Guide to Gargoyles, I will answer common gargoyle-related questions, clarify terminology, and weigh-in on thorny issues about gargoyles’ origins, meanings, and more. I won’t always be able to give you definitive answers, and my information won’t always match up with what you may have read on other, less-discerning websites, but I hope that it will be reliable, informative, and enjoyable.

What is a Gargoyle?

Amiens Cathedral gargoyle
A gargoyle on Amiens Cathedral in France. Photo by Vassil (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

We all think we know what gargoyles are, or at least believe that we recognize them when we see them, but you may be surprised to learn that the definition isn’t what you might expect. Simply put, a gargoyle is a fancy drain spout – part of a gutter system that carries rainwater off a roof.  Unlike the common drain spouts you might have on your house, gargoyles take the shape humans, animals, or imaginary creatures. They are usually made of stone and/or metal.

The word gargoyle is worth spending a moment on because of its wonderfully evocative sound. It comes from the Latin word gurguilio, which means “throat”; thus the term refers to the fact that in most gargoyles, the rainwater goes through their throats and out their mouths. (Less commonly, the water may come out of the gargoyle elsewhere.) The word also mimics the gurgling sound that the water makes when rushing through the gargoyle. The French equivalent is gargouille, which, according to legend, was the name of a medieval dragon in Rouen who became the first-ever gargoyle.

It’s very likely that this definition isn’t at all what you expected. We usually think of gargoyles as fantastical, dragon-like monsters on medieval churches like the famous ones at Notre-Dame de Paris. However, we’ve just learned that it’s function, not appearance, that makes a gargoyle. This means that many of the creatures we’re used to calling gargoyles don’t technically fit that description at all.

It’s probably okay to use the popular definition of the word gargoyle in casual conversation, given how widespread that usage is. However, but there will always be purists who take issue with you for doing so. In fact, I regularly get comments on my blog telling me I’ve used the word incorrectly, when in fact I’m merely being colloquial.

What’s a grotesque and how’s it different from a gargoyle?

Bamburgh Castle grotesque
Bamburgh Castle grotesque. Photo by Gary Rogers via Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 2.0 (

The image we tend to have in mind when we hear the word gargoyle is more properly called a grotesque. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a grotesque is something “departing markedly from the natural, the expected, or the typical”(*), so it basically describes these strange forms perfectly. In art terms, it describes a variety of quirky human, animal, hybrid, or imaginary creatures used as artistic decoration. Less commonly, they can be called chimeras, especially when they are hybrids with parts from multiple animals.

Unlike gargoyles, grotesques need not have any practical function, although they may certainly fulfill more symbolic purposes. (More on that in a later installment.) When they appear in architecture, especially medieval churches, grotesques can sometimes look very similar to gargoyles, which is part of why people tend to confuse the two.

Grotesques aren’t just architectural features, though; they also appear in other art forms. They’re most common in illuminated manuscripts, where they tend to decorate the margins and are often termed marginalia, and they can also appear on furnishings, small-scale decorative arts, and more. In addition to their quirky appearances, gargoyles have one additional thing in common with grotesques. Whether carved onto buildings, painted into manuscripts, or otherwise, all these weird little creatures tend to appear on the outskirts of the objects they inhabit; they are never the focal points or the main decoration, but rather the something additional at the edges whose relationship to the main event is unclear. Think of them like an artistic sideshow.

Vue de Paris depuis Notre-Dame
Notre Dame de Paris. Photo by Myrabella (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Read the rest of the Field Guide to Gargoyles here!

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26 thoughts on “Field Guide to Gargoyles, Part One: What is a Gargoyle?

    1. I’m so glad you enjoyed the post! I don’t know if you found the rest of the Field Guide to Gargoyles, but I just updated this post with the link to the others. It’s near the bottom of this post below the last photo. Thanks for stopping by.

  1. Now that I know a gargoyle is a very fan drain spout, I’m trying to figure out how to put them on the house. We could have the only 1974 raised ranch with gargoyles on the corners.

  2. I’m doing a research paper on grotesques and gargoyles for my art history course, and so far I’ve really enjoyed reading your posts about them, but I need some sources to cite. Besides the linked images, would you recommend any books or articles I could read? I’ve already looked into Form In Gothic, but any help would be appreciated since you seem to be very well versed in this topic. Thanks in advance, and I do enjoy your posts!

    1. Hi Grace! Thanks so much for stopping by! I’m always happy to hear from people who are studying art history.

      It can be difficult to find sources about gargoyles, because not a lot of scholars deal with them. My go-to author is Janetta Rebold Benton. She’s one of the few who has written quite a lot about them. Her main book on the subject is called Holy Terrors: Gargoyles on Medieval Buildings, but she also has several other related works. You can see a list of all her published work here:

      Another author you will want to look at is Michael Camille. His book Image on the Edge: The Margins of Medieval Art is classic in medieval studies. I can’t remember how specifically it deals with gargoyles, but it definitely covers a lot of related ideas about grotesques and how they might be interpreted, so it’s definitely worth a look. Camille also wrote The Gargoyles of Notre-Dame: Medievalism and the Monsters of Modernity. I haven’t managed to get my hands on a copy thus far, but I have no doubt it will be useful to you.

      I hope this helps. Good luck with your paper!


      P.S. If you find any interesting sources I have overlooked, please let me know. 🙂

  3. Thank you so much! After looking into the books you mentioned, I did manage to find a digital copy of the second Camille book you mentioned, and if you’re at all interested in it I’d be happy to share where I found it. I also came across a manuscript translated into Modern Engilsh called The stone missal: A grimoire on the magick of the gargoyles, which is more focused on the occult and summoning rituals for gargoyles, which I don’t personally subscribe to but do find to be very interesting.
    Thank you again for the help!

    1. Grace:

      I’m so glad I was able to help! I would love to know where you found the Camille book. Thanks so much!

      And I wouldn’t put much stock in the occult book either. It was probably written very recently and made to seem like it’s old. People weren’t actually trying to summon gargoyles or anything like that in the Middle Ages. (But I guess some people do today, which I do find interesting.)

      Best of luck on your project, and please stop by again soon.


      1. Here’s the link to the Camille book:
        I checked my university’s library, and as soon as I send this I’m on my way to check out several of the books you recommended. I’m very glad to have found your site, it’s been very helpful! Enjoy the ebook!

  4. With respect, because we dont talk about excrement, is it possible that gargoyles also were conduits for removing human waste? The idea that they were solely to drain rainfall has a very narrow horizon. Because rare indeed is reference to how the residents kept water sweet.

    1. That’s a colorful thought, but it’s unlikely unless medieval people were in the habit of climbing onto church roofs to do their business. People often don’t realize from photographs that gargoyles are really high up on these buildings.

  5. I have been doing some research on gargoyles & grotesques for a post I am working on and I have a question that I am hoping you might be able to direct me on where to research further. Specifically when it comes to the oldest “known” gargoyle is often stated as one from Turkey that dates back to the 13th century. I am not disputing this but question why Mesoamerican ones seem to be excluded, such as Teotinuacan in Mexico. There are a ton of other Mayan sculptures and depictions that I would think would qualify, as well. I am not an art history person or anything like that but the example would be much older than the one from Turkey. So I am trying to wrap my mind around the criteria that are being used to make this reference. If I had to guess, I would think this might have been the oldest at that time until we uncovered more of the Mayan/Aztech empires? Or perhaps Mesoamericans are excluded but if so then why? These are the types of questions I am hoping to answer with further research.

    1. Hi there! Thank you so much for stopping by and for asking such thoughtful questions about one of my favorite topics. My understanding was that the oldest known gargoyles came from ancient Greece. However, I’m not sure if they still survive, and it sounds like you’re talking about the oldest gargoyle to still exist today.

      I am not familiar with this Turkish example, but when I researched it, I kept finding sources saying that it is 13,000 years old, not that it is from the 13th century CE. If correct, this would certainly explain why it beats out Mesoamerican examples. However, I have not yet found anything to substantiate this claim beyond a whole bunch of websites repeating it essentially verbatum. This might be a case of questionable information being passed from source to source without anyone stopping to verify it or dig deeper. I am cautious about this, since very little survives from 11,000 BCE.

      I wouldn’t put too much stock in claims of the first or oldest gargoyles. We are going much too far back in history to know with any degree of certainty. There’s a lot of misinformation out there about gargoyles, and I wouldn’t trust most of the websites reporting on the topic.

      I’m sorry I can’t give you a definitive answer. But thank you so much for making the connection with Mesoamerican art, since most people overlook that one. Would you please send me a link to your post when it’s ready? I would love to read it!

      1. I will send a copy. I did also find I missed the Turkey ones age. I thank you very much for your candid response. I will warn tough after running across your field guides I am steering more towards the “hunting” you suggest and less of the academic. Again thank you for your time and thank you for all you do!

      2. Your link doesn’t work, but no worries, because I got it from the automatic pingback when you linked to my post in yours. It’s a great piece, so congratulations on it! 🙂 I, too, have a collection of little grotesque figurines. They’re so much fun, aren’t they?

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