Friday, March 16, 2007

The Legend of the Gargoyle

This piece and that which follows below (the reprinting of a speech posted earlier) are offered concurrently with the mailing of the current issue of Gottesdienst (to subscribe, click here) which references both posts.

The new drop caps for Gottesdienst are a fancy design meant to complement our traditional and somewhat repristinating style. In the midst of our deliberations over what to use, one intriguing form of fonts called Celtasmigoria was briefly considered, a form in which various Gargoyles are found in positions like the letters of the alphabet (to access this and other free fonts at the web site DaFont, click here and see under Gothic > Celtic). Although we decided that would be a bit extreme and so dismissed the idea, there arose in the midst of our considerations this fascinating history of the appearance of Gargoyles on the rainspouts of medieval churches.

The word "Gargoyle" shares a common root with the word "gargle," which comes from the French gargouille, "throat." A true gargoyle is a waterspout. The word is also derived from the Latin “gurgulio” and is therefore onomatopoetic, meaning “throat” and sounding like the water which gurgles as it passes through the throat. A gargoyle makes a gurgling sound as water passes through the waterspout.

Legend has it that a fierce dragon named La Gargouille with a long neck and membranous wings lived in a cave near the river Seine. The dragon caused much fear and destruction with its fiery breath, spouting water and devouring ships and men. Each year, the residents of Rouen would placate Gargouille with an offering of a victim, usually a criminal, though it was said the dragon preferred maidens. Around 600, the village was saved by St. Romanus, who promised to deal with the dragon if the townspeople agreed to be baptized and to build a church. Romanus, armed with only a crucifix, subdued the dragon by making the sign of the cross, and then led the now docile beast back to town on a leash made from his priest's robe. La Gargouille was then burned at the stake, it is said that his head and neck were so well tempered by the heat of his fiery breath, that they would not burn. These remnants were then mounted on the town wall and became the model for gargoyles for centuries to come.

Now this is a legend, of course. No one knows for sure just what is the exact history or rationale for gargoyles. But the grain of truth in this legend is that it carries with it the Christus Victor theme. That is, a demon’s head is placed on a stake, in token of his demise. No wonder those who embellished churches saw fit to place them high on the roofs.

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