This Weeks Prompt:76. Ancient cathedral—hideous gargoyle—man seeks to rob—found dead—gargoyle’s jaw bloody.
The Resulting Story: The Frog Church
The story of the gargoyle is an interesting one. Grotesque sculptures—specifically one spewing water, but I feel that is an unnecessary division here—gargoyles are fearsome creatures that adorn many old buildings and churches. The gargoyle is sometimes thought of as a protector of the church—a feirce creature that fends off or frightens away evil spirits. Certainly, the gargoyle in this story is playing the role of guardian. But the actual origin of the gargoyle is far stranger.
It all begins with a priest and a dragon. The dragon, however, was more dreadful then your typical terrifying creature. In the tradition of medieval dragons, it was a beast with bat wings, a long neck, and breath of fire (rather standard fare for dragons, as opposed to other french creatures like the Tarrasque). St. Romanus, a chancellor to the king, went out to face the dragon. In some versions, the ones I prefer, he was added by a condemned man, and leashed the beast. Bringing it back to the city it had terrorized, the saint burned the creature. However, the head and neck would not burned—they had become fire proof with the aid of its own breath. So the head and neck were mounted in the church, to ward off wicked spirits. The head spontaneously spouted water—or blocked the rain in a way that looked like a fountain (a nice inversion of its earlier fire breath). St. Romanus also reserved the right for his church to pardon one criminal—non traitorous criminal that is—per year.
The gargoyle then is not at first a willing defender of the church, but the image is rather effective as a guardian. The gargoyle is of course not the only statue associated with the church and not the only statue that guards holy places.
We can consider, for instance, the church grim. We’ve discussed this creature before—a black dog that wards the church, sometimes buried in it’s foundations. The robbery we are dealing with seems likely to be foiled by a church grim, as the creature is much more frequently a physical protector then a mere spiritual one. Other accounts of the church grim—sometimes called the Padfoot–describe a white or white dog, the size of a donkey that stalks at night. Other times, it takes the form of a lamb in the graveyard. It is also reported that the sound or stalking by a church grim marks one for death, and when unseen the grim may make the sound of chains being dragged. Speaking to or striking the church grim gives the grim power over you—resulting in comedic instances like a man being dragged by a particularly mischievous grim all the way back to his window.
We can also consider the Nio. Unlike gargoyles or grim, who are a type of creature or sculpture, the Nio are at least in theory the same two individuals everywhere. The Nio are fearsome defenders of the Buddha—frequently, the two wield thunderbolts and have rather frightening appearances. The exact origin of the two is unclear—some posit them as defenders of the Buddha in life who took up this role after death, some place them as Raksasa, some as thunder spirits. Almost always, one of the pair has an open mouth, the other a closed mouth. The meaning of this pattern is disputed at times—the open mouth to frighten off evil spirits, the closed to keep good spirits in; the open mouth as the first letter of the alphabet, the closed as the last; the open as in someway feminine, the closed as in someway masculine; and so forth.
This imagery, however, is repeated in the lion statues outside shrines in Japan. Komainu or shisa (Japan vs Okinawa) are in fact lions, not dogs, although their origins and naming are a tad convuluted. While I couldn’t find many stories on the komainu, the shisa is a popular general guardian spirit. I found the following stories on the site linked above:
“A Chinese envoy brought a gift for the king, a necklace decorated with a figurine of a shisa. Meanwhile, at Naha bay, the village of Madanbashi was being terrorized by a sea dragon that ate the villagers and destroyed their property. One day, the king was visiting the village, when suddenly the dragon attacked. All the people ran and hid. The local priestess had been told in a dream to instruct the king when he visited to stand on the beach and lift up his figurine towards the dragon; she sent a boy to tell him. The king faced the monster with the figurine held high, and immediately a giant roar sounded throughout the village, a roar so deep and powerful that it even shook the dragon. A massive boulder then fell from heaven and crushed the dragon’s tail. He couldn’t move, and eventually died.
At Tomimori Village in the far southern part of Okinawa, there were often many fires. The people of the area sought out a Feng Shui master, to ask him why there were so many fires. He believed they were because of the power of the nearby Mt. Yaese, and suggested that the townspeople build a stone shisa to face the mountain. They did so, and thus have protected their village from fire ever since.”
The mystic lion statue guardian exists in Tibetan tales as well. We have a classic story of wealth there—a man regularly feeds a stone lion he finds in the woods. This man, Phurba, is notably poor, but still takes the time daily to feed the statue. The lion comes to life one day, and tells Phurba to come early the next day—and to put his hand in the statues mouth. There he will find gold, until the sun rises and the lion’s mouth closes. Phurba succeeds, and his rich neighbor Tenzin goes to do the same. Unlike Phurba, Tenzin does not take his hand out—and for his greed his hand is stuck into the lion.
Tibetan guardian spirits are also a fascinating delve in myth. They in a way resemble our gargoyle most closely—the spirit is a demonic creature, converted to Buddhism and then made a defender of what it converts. There is a long article I will link here, as I’m still reading the works relating to Tibet. However, this connection with the Gargoyle I think hints at some of the horror we can work with here.
Turning to the folklore of Hungary, we have another story of a mystic and righteous statue! A holy man dwelt long in the forest of Hrisco. So righteous and wise was the hermit, he was preferred as a negotiator—the legal authorities were rarely bothered. Eventually, he was called to deal with a peculair case of royalty. The Queen was a widow, and vowed to never remarry. When she met a man she fell in love with Francis, who was also a widower, she adopted him as a son. In time, Francis grew impatient and greedy—and locked the Lady of Larbor in her own castle, telling her servants she had gone mad.
The hermit, having been called by the king’s exiled and destitute lady, berated Francis—and suffered the wrath of the crown. Francis had the hermit locked in the highest tower and left to starve. And eventually the hermit did pass away—but the torment did not cease. For the next day, a statue of the monk appeared on a high rock near the tower. The statue pointed down accusingly at Francis—and despite the efforts of nobles and servants, the statue could not be destroyed. This accusing presence drove Francis mad—he demolished the castle, but the statue and castle returned. He fled, and died miserable and sleepless, the cruel presence of the monk haunting him to the last.
Our story I think then has a few interesting elements. The most overt parts is a story of the gargoyle in question, as a fearsome creature. A terrible origin story for the apparent statue. Here we can also observe the Lovecraft story, “The Terrible Old Man”. The story details a number of thieves trying to break into an easy mark’s house…and suffering a terrible fate. A useful technique here is the giving a clues to the history of the place, in small snippets and words. I have a nasty habit of just…saying what the story of a place or creature is. Our strange grotesque could have more hints around it. What sort of supernatural, or even alien, thing it had once been. Perhaps this is not the first thief to have met a grizzly end.
Particularly interesting to me is this recurring story, in both the Nio, the Gargoyle, and the Tibetan guardian deities, that an enemy of the holy place is converted into it’s most ardent defender. The potential parallel for our unfortunate burglar might work out well—perhaps a newly carved gargoyle bears an uncanny resemblance to him.
This story is also a good time to revisit the church as a location—particularly the Gothic cathedral. The most famous use of course is Hunchback of Notre Dame which…I have not read. I did see the Disney adaptation, which makes use of the gargoyles as…elements. Comedic relief I guess. Still, a cathedral is a fascinating location to me, as almost every cathedral is adorned with images. Stories in stained glass, statues of saints, names carved into the ground to mark tombs. A cathedral to me is certainty a presence as much as a place. It is easy to feel, among so many eyes and symbols, like you are being watched and judged.
Henderson, William. Notes on the Folk-Lore of the Northern Counties of England and the Borders. Pub. for the Folk-Lore Society by W. Satchell, Peyton, 1879.
Pogány, Nándor. The Hungarian Fairy Book. [1st ed.] New York: F. A. Stokes Co., 1913.
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