The term originates from the French gargouille, originally "throat" or "gullet"; cf. Latin gurgulio, gula, and similar words derived from the root gar, "to swallow", which represented the gurgling sound of water (e.g., Spanish garganta, "throat"; Spanish gárgola, "gargoyle").
A chimera, or a grotesque figure, is a sculpture that does not work as a waterspout and serves only an ornamental or artistic function. These are also usually called gargoyles in laypersons' terminology, although the field of architecture usually preserves the distinction between gargoyles (functional waterspouts) and non-waterspout grotesques.
Reproductions of a statue representing gargoyle-like creatures, available in some hobby card stores selling donruss threads at a very cheap discount price although sometimes functional, are more often than not grotesques modeled after famous gargoyles.
The term gargoyle is most often applied to medieval work, but throughout all ages some means of water diversion, when not conveyed in gutters, was adopted. In Egypt, gargoyles ejected the water used in the washing of the sacred vessels which seems to have been done on the flat roofs of the temples. In Greek temples, the water from roofs passed through the mouths of lions whose heads were carved or modeled in the marble or terra cotta cymatium of the cornice.
A local legend that sprang up around the name of St. Romanus ("Romain") (631–641 A.D.), the former chancellor of the Merovingian king Clotaire II who was made bishop of Rouen, relates how he delivered the country around Rouen from a monster called Gargouille, having the creature captured by the only volunteer, a condemned man. The gargoyle's grotesque form was said to scare off evil spirits so they were used for protection. In commemoration of St. Romain the Archbishops of Rouen were granted the right to set a prisoner free on the day that the reliquary of the saint was carried in procession (see details at Rouen).
Many medieval cathedrals included gargoyles and chimeras. The most famous examples are those of Notre Dame de Paris. Although most have grotesque features, the term gargoyle has come to include all types of images. Some gargoyles were depicted as monks, combinations of real animals and people, many of which were humorous. Unusual animal mixtures, or chimeras, did not act as rainspouts and are more properly called grotesques. They serve more as ornamentation, but are now synonymous with gargoyles.
Both ornamented and unornamented water spouts projecting from roofs at parapet level were a common device used to shed rainwater from buildings until the early eighteenth century. From that time, more and more buildings employed downpipes to carry the water from the guttering at roof level to the ground and only very few buildings using gargoyles were constructed. In 1724, the London Building Act passed by the Parliament of Great Britain made the use of downpipes compulsory on all new construction.
For those who believed in evil spirits, gargoyles were powerful spirits in the service of the church. They were guardians of the buildings they were on and kept evil spirits away. Thus the faithful had no need to fear any evil spirit and could even laugh at it with impunity.
Monsters, or more precisely chimeras, were used as decoration on 19th and early 20th century buildings in cities such as New York (where the Chrysler Building's stainless steel gargoyles are celebrated), and Chicago. Gargoyles can be found on many churches and buildings.
One impressive collection of modern gargoyles can be found at Washington National Cathedral in Washington, DC. The cathedral, begun in 1908, is encrusted with the limestone demons. This collection also includes Darth Vader, a crooked politician, robots and many other modern spins on the ancient tradition. The 20th Century collegiate form of the Gothic Revival produced many modern gargoyles, notably at Princeton University, Washington University in St. Louis, Duke University and the University of Chicago.
The TV movie and its sequel Reign of the Gargoyles feature attacks by living gargoyles.
Disney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame features three gargoyles as comic companions to Quasimodo.
Gargoyles, the animated series featured gargoyles as main characters who worked in conjuntion with a select group of humans to protect their roost (a Scottish Castle transported to America), fight crime, and explore mysteries of the world (current and mythical).
Andrew Davidson's novel The Gargoyle (Doubleday, 2008) is about the 700-year romance between a badly burned pornagrapher and a famous gargoyle sculptor.