Gargoyles are increasingly popular as tattoo designs and have been around for thousands of years as the water spouts with the not-so-cuddly faces. You have probably seen them as architectural decoration, usually at the roof line channelling water from the gutters. It became generally believed that these elaborately grotesque characters could keep away evil spirits and protect the buildings and their occupants from harm. The figures are meant to act as amulets and talismans of protection.
Medieval believers claimed that as the rainwater gushed out of the open-mouthed creature, it turned into holy water. These demonic humanoids usually display their talons, tails and horns, and often come with wings and fins. The word ‘gargoyle’ has its roots in French and Latin for ‘throat’ and ‘swallow’. Think ‘gargle’, and you’ll know what Gargoyles are all about.
In ancient Egypt gargoyles were used for spouting out the water used for washing ceremonial vessels on the temple roofs. In Greek temples, the marble water spouts often took the shape of lion heads. The gargoyles that we have come to know and love adorned the medieval cathedrals of Europe. Nobody can say for sure what these fantastic carvings depicted, since no definitive historical records exist to enlighten us. They probably served, however, to incite the imagination into fits of storytelling, since this was a pre-literate age.
Not all gargoyles spout water. Some of these stone carvings are purely ornamental, and are more properly referred to as ‘chimera’. Chimera are mythical creatures dating back to a number of cultures, including Ancient Greece, Egypt, Persia and China and are creatures combining the features of two or more different animals.
One of the most famous of the chimera is the Griffon, Griffin, or Gryphon (spelling depending upon culture of origin), the legendary figure with the body of a lion and the head and wings of an eagle. Sometimes the griffin is depicted with an eagle’s talons, or a lion’s claws, and occasionally the griffon has elongated ears. Such creatures were often featured in heraldic crests, as the lion and the eagle were both considered to symbolize nobility.
You can find some impressive modern gargoyles and chimera in New York and Chicago, while on the National Cathedral in Washington, DC., limestone demons are encrusted in the walls. But if you want to see the most spectacular medieval examples of gargoyles watching over the city, go to Paris. Want to adopt your own pet gargoyle? The homeless ones usually gather down at your local Goth and New Age retail store.
The human skull, although not officially a ‘demon’, performs roughly the same protective function when tattooed on the body. It’s a death-defying symbol, believed to cheat death and act as an amulet and talisman of protection.
Get inspired by some great images and tattoos in our Gargoyle Tattoo Gallery