My Take: Gargoyles the Ancient Rain Gutters

Cassie Brill’s article Preventative Home Maintenance is informative about the damage unchecked moisture can cause a buidling structure. But, did you know the Ancient Greeks, Romans and Gauls had this in mind when the gargoyle was used on the facade to act as rain gutters?

Our brilliant ancestor architects and plumbing designers devised the gargoyle to prevent the rain and moisture from accumulating around the important areas of the building. And, yes there were others reasons also, to ward off bad spirits.

Today in the news, gargoyles on top of the historic Atlas Building in downtown Helena, Montana received a good cleaning and some fresh long lasting paint. Afterall, they have been sitting up there for over a 100 years. The gargoyles are interesting decorations and have religious and historical significance going back to the Middle Ages.

Gargoyles may be seen over most of Europe and copied here in the United States. The gargoyle is a mythical character that is supposed to ward off evil spirits from entering. That is why you see most gargoyles at the entrance of buildings or hovering from eaves on many buildings. The renewed interest by twentieth century architects on all things ancient brought a renaissance of the gargoyle to building facades.

A significant reason the gargoyle came about was the attraction of non-Christians who could neither read nor write to images of “spirituality and power.” These gargoyle images and other mythical archetypes provided a message by Christian organizers that their edifices were protected by the gargoyles and thus okay for non Christians to enter.

The derivation of the term is traced to the Latin word, “gurgulio” and the French word, “gargouille,” which means throat.

The gargoyle has a practical side. On many building facades the gargoyle was placed so as to act as a rain gutter, thus protecting the building from discoloration or damage due to water. The actual use of these eerie looking creatures can be traced to Ancient Greek times. Works of marble and certain stones could be harmed irreversibly by water seepage and thus the “throat” figure albeit the gargoyle was a nifty plumber’s device of our ancestors.

The significance of the gargoyle is in the eye of the beholder. Some believe the gargoyle wards off all the evil spirits. Some believe the gargoyle scares the heck out of evil spirits. Some believe the stone figures come alive at night after everyone is sleeping and wander about protecting the citizens from harm. Before dawn the gargoyle resumes his stone composition and returns to the building facade. All in all the gargoyles while frightening in appearance has a good side both practically and metaphysically.

Preventative Maintenance is therefore not a modern day subject. It is as old as the ancients who saw a beautiful piece of work and anticipated it would take some care to keep it in shape. From a metaphysical point of view, the gargoyle made sure that some spooky spirit did not come by and blow the building down.

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