Stare up at any medieval building and you will no doubt see the familiar gnarled faces of gargoyles dotting its facade. So what are these creatures and why did Gothic architects include them in their designs? The answer is surprisingly logical. Read on.
Turns out, a gargoyle is a type of grotesque — a repulsive or distorted creature or image — but one with a very specific purpose: to act as a spout and divert rainwater off the roofs of large, medieval buildings. In fact, the name comes from the French word gargouille or gullet.
To prevent roof damage, gutters collect rainwater and guide it through the gargoyle so it pours out of its mouth. The longer the body of the creature, the farther the water will pour away from the building because...physics. Many large buildings even used a series of subsequent gargoyles to move water across large and tiered areas until it finally pours over the edge.
Not all gargoyles are the fantastical, gnarled creatures you might picture on a medieval European building. Look at this comical example of a 1st century BC gargoyle in Afghanistan:
The tradition of building gargoyles in the grotesque style most likely came from the Catholic Church who used the scary creatures as symbols of the concept of evil for their often illiterate congregations. They also were believed to serve the equally handy purpose of scaring evil spirits away from the building. Remember, many Gothic buildings used regular, grotesque statues for these symbolic reasons only. Technically, only gargoyles serve the dual purpose of also transporting water.