Mythologist and folklorist Gary Varner was a recent guest here answering questions about the origins, history, and expressions of gargoyles and grotesques. He has researched a variety of subjects and is the author of Creatures in the Mist: Little People, Wild Men and Spirit Beings around the World: A Study of Comparative Mythology (Algora Publishing, 2007). The publisher’s website provides the following description:
Folklore around the world reflects mankind’s abiding interest in other-worldly creatures including vampires, werewolves, giants, fairies, and spirit beings. This easy-reading compendium will have a broad appeal among the general public. This book will delight everyone who is fascinated with tales of fairies, mystical beings around the world, and the legends and fairytales that feed our imagination.
Gary Varner: Myth and folklore link all of us to a common thread. Our pasts in regards to our specific origins, ethnic roots and cultures may be different but we find many commonalities in our folklore and collective mythology. Because so many legends are almost identical, such as those connected with the Yeti, Bigfoot, and Sasquatch it is also very possible that these creatures did and possibly still do exist.
TheoFantastique: What is the basic thesis of your book Creatures in the Mist?
Gary Varner: I have pulled certain themes together to show that similar stories can be found the world over and throughout time concerning mermaids, sea monsters, gigantic bipeds and the little people or fairy. I am always interested in why the stories are so similar even though the geographic areas may be so far apart. Could it be that the “Hobbit” people of
TheoFantastique: Can you share a couple of examples of creatures that appear in various cultures, and the types of similarities that may be found among them across cultures?
Gary Varner: The “wild man” or Bigfoot is perhaps the best known of a creature that is recognizable around the world. From the
TheoFantastique: Do you see any similarities or relationships between the stories of the Wild Men or Giants of cultures in times past and contemporary stories of Bigfoot or Yeti?
Gary Varner: Yes although the Wild Men legends differ in that they sometimes describe creatures of small and sometimes dwarf stature and even appearing as goblins. Their appearances seem to vary depending on the region. Wild people in the forested areas of
The other legends such as those about Yeti, Bigfoot etc., are entirely different in that they invariably describe a more primitive type of creature.
Giants, however, have and still do exist to some degree. In Greek mythology giants were primordial deities. Giants are common in Native American lore and while most of them are supernatural creatures there are a few legends that speak of giants as beings from other lands as human as you and I. The Cherokee, for example, have a legend of a party of giants that visited Cherokee villages in the 17th century. Said to be twice as tall as common men with slanted eyes, they reportedly “lived very far away in the direction in which the sun goes down.” And, of course the Bible tells of a land of giants that were hunted down and slaughtered by the Hebrews. The interesting thing about these legends is how they were told as historical “events” and not as myth.
TheoFantastique: When I was growing up in the 1970s I enjoyed the program In Search of… that explored various paranormal phenomenon, including cryptozoology, and the contemporary program Monster Quest that does the same. Unfortunately, these programs are usually often disappointing in terms of holding out promise of the alleged existence of fantastic creatures that may inform our folklore and myths, but the evidence is usually lacking. Any thoughts on this?
Gary Varner: Yes, I enjoy Monster Quest now too but always know that any actual creature that they are looking for will never likely be found. They are entertaining and I think that they are worthwhile in that they provide “possibilities” that people should consider. We all need the unknown, the possibility that unusual creatures do exist, that the world is more than what we see everyday to keep ourselves grounded. We need to keep myth alive and who knows, previously unknown and thought to be extinct animals continue to be found so why not keep looking for these mystical beings?
Gary Varner: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure!
There are a few items in the fantastic that I am passionate about, and one of those happens to be gargoyles, or more specifically as we will see below, grotesques. Each Halloween season I try to add a few to my collection. They have been popular figures in culture for some time, including on contemporary pop culture. Consider not only gargoyles in connection with Halloween, but also that they have appeared as minor figures in Disney’s animated The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and they were part of their own animated television series by the name Gargoyles from 1994 to 1997.
But what is the history of these interesting creatures? Gary Varner helps us understand these interesting creatures. Varner has over twenty books in print about folklore, mythology, Native Americans, ancient symbols, mythic creatures and cultural diffusion. Those directly related to the topic of this interview include Gargoyles, Grotesques, and Green Men: Ancient Symbolism in European and American Architecture (lulu.com, 2008), and Strangely Wrought Creatures of Life and Death: Ancient Symbolism in European and American Architecture (lulu.com, 2006). His website, http://www.authorsden.com/garyrvarner, is visited by readers in over 40 countries. Over 900 university and municipal libraries around the world have copies of his books, including the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of the American Indian and the
In an attempt to stay current in folklore studies, he maintains membership in the American Folklore Society and the Royal Anthropological Institute. His articles have appeared in American, British and German journals.
Varner has traveled extensively to document his material, most notably to
Following is our discussion of the gargoyle.
Gary Varner: I had seen many gargoyles and grotesques on my trips to the
TheoFantastique: What is the etymological origin and meaning of “gargoyle,” and what types of historical and cultural influences lie behind our present conceptions of these artistic creations?
Gary Varner: The word “gargoyle” is derived from the French “gargouille” from the Latin “gurgula” meaning “throat” or “gullet.” Gargoyles serve a very utilitarian purpose as water spouts. In fact, only these features constitute a true gargoyle—anything else is considered a “grotesque.” What we consider the classic gargoyle today originated during the early 12th century CE, however decorative water spouts can be traced back to the days of ancient
TheoFantastique: How might we classify the gargoyle in terms of other symbolic and mythical creatures with which it might co-exist if you will?
Gary Varner: Gargoyles can take the form of most any real or mythical beast. I have seen them in the form of goats, dragons, lions, fish, eagles, parrots and in human form. Many times they have been carved in a whimsical fashion and many times in a very terrifying form. The old architects of the middle ages obviously had a very good sense of humor in that some of their gargoyles were caricatures of real people.
TheoFantastique: What types of forms do gargoyles take? How have artists expressed them?
Gary Varner: Since their function is to divert water from roof tops the form is somewhat restricted. However artistic renditions have taken any number of forms from the whimsical to the religious to the horrifying. Their forms have changed over time with the more grotesque forms originating during the Romanesque period and the more sedate and classical forms more common during earlier periods. Some have suggested that the gargoyle forms themselves represent Christian symbols of evil and sin but others believe that the forms actually represent the individual personalities of the stone carvers and their experiences, values and belief systems. Many of them more than likely had roots in paganism and brought many pagan traditions into their art.
TheoFantastique: In what types of buildings and structures are gargoyles found?
Gary Varner: Originally, gargoyles were created for ecclesiastical structures. This may be simply because they were the tallest buildings with the greatest need for water runoff. Why they suddenly appeared in the 12th century on churches in that particular form is unknown. A shift in their usage occurred in the 16th century when they were placed on secular buildings and the homes of the wealthy throughout
TheoFantastique: What is the meaning or meanings of their symbolism in different cultures and periods of history?
Gary Varner: I don’t believe that a “meaning” can be tied to any of these forms. They represent the traditions of the stone carver during the 12th century and they continued to the present day as a symbol of the past that we have come to love as a culture. Many of these artistic endeavors obviously have a Celtic theme. I have seen a gargoyle at Mission San Luis Rey in
TheoFantastique: How, when and why did gargoyles come to be associated with Christian churches and cathedrals?
Gary Varner: I believe this occurred because the first were installed on Gothic cathedrals perhaps as Christian “spiritual scarecrows” to warn evil away from the church building. There has been some speculation as well that they were placed on churches to entice the “heathen” population to enter and be comfortable with pagan images in close proximity. This is one mystery that may never be solved though.
TheoFantastique: Is there any connection between the gargoyle and the Green Men, and can you summarize some of the background of this symbol?
Gary Varner: The Green Man could be a gargoyle if it had a water spout but I don’t believe any of the ancient Green Man forms do. Green Men are grotesques rather than gargoyles. A “grotesque” may have many of the design elements of the gargoyle but they have taken a totally divergent path. One scholar noted “Grotesque art, then, expresses the repressed.” Many grotesques such as the legendary sheela-na-gig, a grotesque female figure which rudely exposes its genitalia, are also found on ancient church edifices from the 8th century into the Christian era. Like the gargoyles the sheela’s became common during the 12th century and may have served as a warning against sexual sin. The Green Man, to the contrary, is an ancient symbol of rebirth, renewal and fertility. They are also located in many Christian churches across