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Features Archive:

2003 Archive:
Ley Lines, Old Straight Tracks, and Earth Energies by Jeff Belanger
December 13, 2003

Dybbuk - Spiritual Possession and Jewish Folklore by Jeff Belanger
November 29, 2003

What to Look For in a Paranormal Group by Andrew D. Laird
November 24, 2003

Reincarnation: Thoughts, Aspects, and Musings by Lee Prosser
November 17, 2003

Inside the Psychic Mind of James Van Praagh by Jeff Belanger
November 15, 2003

Exploring Our Dreams by Jeff Belanger
November 1, 2003

Halloween 2003 - What Scares Us by Jeff Belanger
October 18, 2003

Supernatural Glossary by Brian Leffler, with contributions by the staff
October 13, 2003

L'Empire de la Morte by Jeff Belanger
October 4, 2003

Spell Casting and Green Witchcraft by Jeff Belanger
September 20, 2003

To Light a Candle by Lee Prosser
September 18, 2003

The Ghosts and Legends of Juneau's Alaskan Hotel by Jeff Belanger
September 6, 2003

A Glimpse of the Afterlife: Near-Death Experiences by Jeff Belanger
August 23, 2003

Gargoyles: Sacred Scarecrows by Jeff Belanger
August 9, 2003

Astral Travel Agents by Jeff Belanger
July 26, 2003

What's Your Sign? by Jeff Belanger
July 12, 2003

The Skeptic's View by Jeff Belanger
June 28, 2003

Mercy Brown, the Rhode Island Vampire by Jeff Belanger
June 16, 2003

It's in the Cards by Jeff Belanger
May 31, 2003

Exploring Satanism by Jeff Belanger
May 17, 2003

My First Ghost Hunt by Jeff Belanger
May 3, 2003

Leaps of Faith by Jeff Belanger
April 19, 2003

Sance - A Round Table Discussion by Jeff Belanger
April 5, 2003

Exorcism: Vanquishing Demons by Jeff Belanger
March 22, 2003

Do All Dogs Go to Heaven? by Jeff Belanger
March 8, 2003

Which Witch is Which? by Jeff Belanger
February 22, 2003

Being Psychic With Peter James by Jeff Belanger
February 8, 2003

Funeral Practices and the Afterlife by Jeff Belanger
January 25, 2003

Lawrenceville Library's Most Famous Headstone by Jeff Belanger
January 11, 2003

August 9, 2003

Gargoyles: Sacred Scarecrows

By Jeff Belanger

A gargoyle at Ochre Court in Newport, Rhode Island. Most people think of the supernatural as a very intangible thing. Many perceive it to be an enigma that just can't concretely be proved one way or the other. But there is proof of the supernatural all around us. While strolling through the streets of almost any city, just look up at some of the magnificent architecture and you're bound to spot a gargoyle leering back at you.

I recently spoke with Darlene Trew Crist, author of the book American Gargoyles: Spirits in Stone. She said, "A true gargoyle is a carving that covers the drainage system of a building, but they're much more than that. One of the reasons I like them is they are an art form that has real function as well as meaning."

In addition to gargoyles, we have grotesques, which can also be monstrous, whimsical, and frightening in design, but they do not serve a physical function like directing rainwater. Both gargoyles and grotesques have stood watch over secular and sacred buildings for many hundreds of years, but why contrast beautiful, and many times religious, architecture with intentionally horrific sculptures? History and folklore have some answers.

Gargoyles can trace their history back many thousands of years to ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome. Terra cotta waterspouts were formed in the shapes of animals such as lions and birds to serve the physical function of running the rainwater away from the walls and foundations of buildings, and the spiritual function of protecting from evil forces. 

The idea of monsters, dragons, and other creatures of mythical proportions do have a solid foundation in history. Author and researcher Adrienne Mayor theorized that monster legends date back to nomads discovering fossilized dinosaur bones in central Asia several hundred years B.C.E. Imagine stumbling upon the giant bones of a pterodactyl or a protoceratops? You may have no idea that these bones were millions of years old -- just that they clearly belonged to a giant, powerful beast. From these early discoveries and with the help of folklore, griffins, monsters, and dragons may have been born.

In our conversation, Crist relayed the story of La Gargouille. La Gargouille was a scaly, fire-breathing dragon with a long neck and giant wings who lived in a cave near the river Seine in France in the seventh century C.E. As the story goes, once a year La Gargouille would come to the village of Rouen and demand a human offering. The villagers would occasionally get away with offering a prisoner, but La Gargouille's favorite feast was a virgin maiden. The villagers quickly learned that without the sacrificial offering, the dragon would rain terror and destruction on them -- spouting water on their riverboats and fire on their buildings and fields. ("Gargouille" in Old French means "throat.")

Folklore states that a priest who came to be known as St. Romanis arrived in the village intent on spreading Christianity. St. Romanis asked the people of Rouen to build him a church and convert to Christianity. The villagers told the priest if he could solve their dragon problem, they would do what he asked. According to legend, St. Romanis met La Gargouille on his way up the hill to the village of Rouen and subdued the beast using only a crucifix. He then led the dragon into the village on a leash made from tearing his robe, and the villagers burned the dragon at the stake. La Gargouille's head and neck would not burn because they were tempered from his fiery breath, so the head would be placed on top of the newly-built church as a symbol of this priest's power over La Gargouille. Crist said, "My husband and I traveled to Rouen, and there is a cathedral there with a dragon gargoyle on it." 

Another reason for incorporating the gargoyle onto churches was to appeal to a vast Pagan population. Crist said, "The Celtic people were fierce hunters, and they would put the heads of their prey on sticks surrounding their villages to serve as a warning sign and to protect their villages. When Christianity came into being, they were looking for people to inhabit their churches. In one village, it was said that the priest came and cut a deal with the villagers to put one of these heads on the church to make it more acceptable and welcoming to the Pagans. It was an incorporation of their culture."

As time progressed and the Pagan roots of gargoyles began to fade from history, new meaning and reason for them began to evolve. Crist said, "They were also interpreted to be a sign of damned souls who were forever caught in stone on their way to hell. So they were inhabited by spirits."

Gargoyles served to teach a mostly illiterate population about messages the Church was trying to convey about the afterlife. By the Middle Ages, gargoyles were being placed on many of the churches and cathedrals being built. Although the names of many of these sculptures of sacred scarecrows may have been lost to history, a lot of their work is still around today. Apparently many of the artists had quite a sense of humor. Crist said, "Gargoyles were the only place that carvers and sculptors had any artistic license. So the carvers would often put lewd and obscene sort of figures up at the top of these spiritual places -- and they didn't get caught."

Gargoyles as we know them today may have their roots in Europe, but over the centuries they have spread around the world, and each country has added its touch and culture to these creatures. "As they evolved in America, they've taken on this whole comic sort of tone. They've really lightened up. They're less evil- and scary-looking and in many ways they reflect our culture," Crist said. 

Gargoyles and grotesques are still carved today by a select few craftsmen. Walter S. Arnold is one such sculptor who still makes these fantastic creatures. Some of Arnold's creations appear on the Washington National Cathedral, which is home to some of the most impressive gargoyles in the United States. Arnold spoke to me from his studio in Chicago on what inspires his creations. He said, "When I was working on the Washington Cathedral for five years, we had an old New Yorker cartoon up in the shop. It was a medieval carving shop, and some patron, a bishop or duke, was in there. The carver was working on a gargoyle, and he had empty flasks of wine lying around the floor. The patron was saying, 'Where do you get your inspiration?'

"Seriously, it comes from a wide range of things -- first of all, from looking at a lot of sculptural forms from all sorts of cultures and times, looking at people and animals. It has always been a form that's allowed for a lot of creativity and innovation. It's one of the things I like about them."

So is there something spiritual to gargoyles? Arnold said, "In a way, stone is alive. It's a pure, natural material; each piece is different and has its own character and variations in it. I've spent enough time visiting quarries to have a sense of how beautiful the quarries and the mountains are, and if I'm taking stone out of the mountain, I have kind of a responsibility to create something with it that justifies cutting it out of the mountain."

How about supernatural? "The artist takes it [the artwork] ninety to ninety-five percent of the way, and then every viewer comes to it with their own perspective. In a way, each viewer finishes it differently. So that part of it happens after it leaves my hands, and it will speak differently to each person. I certainly work to make them come alive and look alive, and some of that is technical, some of that is artistic, and some of it is just my feeling on the pieces."

Gargoyles are a compilation of many different animals, both real and mythical, the artists' inspiration, and our own imaginations. They can be funny, intimidating, and beautiful -- sometimes all in one piece. Gargoyles serve as a "living" reminder of our Pagan roots and our very supernatural world.

Click here to buy Darlene Trew Crist's book, American Gargoyles: Spirits in Stone (Random House, 2001)

Walter S. Arnold can be reached via his Web site:

For information on purchasing Ben Garvin's gargoyle photographs, please email him at:

2014 Haunted New England Wall Calendar by Jeff Belanger photography by Frank Grace
Check out the 2014 Haunted New England wall calendar by Jeff Belanger and photography by Frank Grace!

Paranormal Conferences and Lectures
Don't miss the following events and lectures:

Jeff Belanger and “The Bridgewater Triangle” at Dedham Community Theatre - April 6, 2014 9:00PM

The Spirits of the Mark Twain House - Hartford, Connecticut - April 12, 2014

Paracon Australia - East Maitland, New South Wales, Australia - May 10-12, 2014