Children of the '90s likely hold Disney's 1994 cartoon series Gargoyles close to their hearts. The animation made the ornately carved and sour-faced building toppers seem like Avengers coming alive at night to fight crime. The popular television monsters weren't real gargoyles, though; they were grotesques.
While gargoyles are embedded deeply in popular culture through appearances in movies and television shows, their real origins remain elusive. They may have first appeared around 1000 CE, centuries before their animated counterparts came to life on the small screen.
According to author Gary R. Varner's book Gargoyles, Grotesques & Green Men: Ancient Symbolism in European & American Architecture, the gargoyles emerged as popular church additions around the year 1000. While the church in the legend of La Gargouille used a dragon's head to protect the building, many holy structures used gargoyles to terrify citizens into attending services.
Another theory suggests the imps with demonic features lived on the outside of the church, so people felt safer inside the church than outside of it. Other people theorize gargoyles were meant to look like pagan gods. The pagan symbols could purportedly attract even more people to the congregation.
Two types of carved statues can be found perched atop buildings: grotesques and gargoyles. People may confuse the two or simply call all the grimacing imps gargoyles. In fact, the so-called gargoyles from the 1994 Disney cartoon were actually "grotesques" since they lacked one crucial function: the ability to drain water from the structure they guarded.
Initially, gargoyles were only meant to drain water away from intricate stonework behind them via a spout in their mouth. Thus, every stone watcher that serves this purpose is a gargoyle—and any without is, simply, a grotesque.
Grotesques can be carved into the shape of chimeras, human faces, or animals. In this light, in the 1980s and '90s, pop culture characters emerged on grotesque carvings. Many of the gargoyles and grotesques look humorous, like the human figure in Wells, England, with a wide, mocking mouth.
"Gargoyle" comes from the French word gargouille, which means "throat." An origin story, the legend of La Gargouille, is French, as well. In the tale, La Gargouille the dragon intimidates townspeople who live near the River Seine, breathing fire, eating ships, and expelling flood water from its mouth. In an attempt to appease the fierce monster, the plagued people sacrifice themselves.
Around the year 600, a priest named Romanus arrives to take care of the beast if the community promises to build and attend his church. After Romanus dispatches La Gargouille with a crucifix, they try to burn the body. Everything but the head and neck turn to ash. So, the newly constructed church mounts the head to keep evil at bay.