Although today we find different kinds of gargoyles, their traditional function was as waterspouts. So it is not surprising that the word derives from the French ‘gargouille’ meaning ‘throat’, which in turn comes from the Latin ‘gurgulio’ (‘throat’ or ‘gurgling’).
A French legend tells of a dragon called La Gargouille, who lived in a cave near the river Seine and used to attack people and ships when they passed by. The civilians who lived in Rouen used to placate this dragon with human sacrifices. When St Romanus was sent to convert the people of Rouen to Catholicism, he made a deal with them. Romanus promised that he would capture the dragon if they let him build a church in the village and baptize them all. Romanus attacked the dragon with a crucifix and managed to drag it back to the village so the inhabitants could burn it at the stake. Whilst burning, the dragon spat fire, and its head and neck would not burn. The people of Rouen pulled the remains of La Gargouille from the ashes and mounted them on the wall of the new church to keep evil away.
Gargoyles can be traced back 4,000 years and were very common in Rome, Greece and Egypt. It is thought that the first real gargoyles appeared in Egypt, where people used the heads of different animals to decorate their buildings. When the Greeks saw these statues, they incorporated them into their own architecture, using mythological creatures like griffins, centaurs and harpies instead of the Egyptian animals. Soon gargoyles spread around Europe, where it was found that these waterspouts could prevent rain from running down the sides of the builidngs.