Sometimes, history gets it wrong. Terribly wrong. Such is the case with the origin of Gargoyles, those fanciful, grotesque sculptures carved in gray stone that began appearing on the cathedrals of Europe in the 1200s. Sculptures, that is, with a job: to transport rainwater far away from the cathedral’s foundation, typically through the mouth of the grotesque figure. Oh, and to ward off evil spirits and such.
Although it is popularly thought that the word itself shares a common root with “gargle,” from the French “gargouille,” for “throat, or from the Latin “gurgulio,” which captures both “throat” and “gurgling” in one word--the thought being that water passing through a gargoyle makes a gurgling sound--the truth is just the opposite: the French word and the Latin word derive from “gargoyle,” which traces its roots back to 4000 B.C., 800 years before the first pharaoh, and 1,370 years before Imhotep devised his plan for the first pyramid.
Egypt then was nothing more than a hodgepodge of city states, or “nomos,” with leaders known as “nomarchs.” Which is neither here nor there, and whether “nomarchs” somehow became “monarchs” later on through some act of royal dyslexia is of no interest or consequence to the present discussion.
What is of interest is that the king (okay, the nomarch) of one of these city states, King Ga-Ry (literally, “Hawk Dropping”), made a discovery that would forever change the world, a discovery that would be employed by Imhotep in his pyramid design, as well as by medieval architects in the construction of cathedrals. It all started, as many great discoveries do, with an accident. King Ga-Ry, despite the screamed advice of an arm-waving bazaar merchant not to, stuck his arm into a tank containing a baby octopus, which immediately latched on to the king’s arm. The king pulled his arm out of the tank and began tugging at the octopus, shouting, “let go, let go, l’ego!” Miraculously, the octopus obliged.
That night, the king marveled at the marks left by the octopus, as well as its strength, recording his thoughts on a scroll entitled, THOUGHTS AND STUFF BY HIS MAGNIFICENT SELF, KING GA-RY: “If I could but capture that strength, I could build a tower to the very heavens.” But try as he might, after experiment after experiment, he could not mimic the octopus. And yet the failed experiments, recorded in great detail on the king’s scroll, were to prove invaluable to Imhotep, who bought the scroll at a flea market 1,370 years later, for the modern day equivalent of 35 cents.
How the pyramids were built remains a mystery. Whatever Imhotep learned he kept closely guarded, passing on the knowledge to a select few. And with the end of the age of the pharaohs, the secret was lost. But not forever. Nearly four millennia later, the scroll surfaced during the sacking of Constantinople (see Fourth Crusade) and was spirited away by one of the Knights Templar. A few years later, gargoyles began appearing on cathedrals.
GARGOYLE SALESMAN: Nice church you have here.
BISHOP: Cathedral, actually.
GARGOYLE SALESMAN: Is that right?
BISHOP: Indeed it is.
GARGOYLE SALESMAN: Pity.
GARGOYLE SALESMAN: I mean, it’s a shame, what with all the evil spirits in the world, that you don’t have something to protect your investment.
BISHOP: And what would that be?
GARGOYLE SALESMAN [removing shroud from a large object]: Like one of these here gargoyles.
BISHOP: Yikes! What the--?
GARGOYLE SALESMAN: You see. Scary, right?
BISHOP: Oh my, yes. Gave me quite a start.
GARGOYLE SALESMAN: A gargoyle here, a gargoyle there, problem solved, say good-bye to the evil spirits.
BISHOP: I don’t know.
GARGOYLE SALESMAN: Did I mention they are also great at diverting water away from your foundation?
GARGOYLE SALESMAN: At no extra cost, of course, and we’d throw in installation.
BISHOP: Now you’re talking!
And so it went, from cathedral to cathedral, the Knights Templar installing gargoyles everywhere, not to ward off evil spirits, but to help hide their treasure, to leave clues to its whereabouts, and most of all, to beta test the construction technique they’d learned from Ga-Ry’s scroll.
Some say the Knights Templar are no more, but there is strong evidence to suggest otherwise, that they are in fact building an even larger treasure based on the invention that started with Ga-Ry’s scroll, in which Ga-Ry talked about creating a building block that was immensely strong and yet would “l’ego,” just as the octopus had. The Knights Templar, ever devious and devout lovers of anagrams and such, took Ga-Ry’s L’ego and scrambled it to Gray Legos, and then, to cover their tracks further, to Gargoyles, which seemed a whole lot scarier than Gray Legos.
And should you doubt this history, you have only to open today’s newspaper (if your city is lucky enough to still have one) and read the story about what Egyptologists found when they used ground-penetrating radar to examine the pyramids at Giza.