Some of the earliest known forms of this type of architectural element have been found in ancient Roman and Greek ruins. These were made of terra-cotta. Later figures were carved of wood, with a complete shift to stone by the 13th century.
Gargoyles were originally intended as waterspouts and drains to keep rain water from damaging the foundation of buildings. The term gargoyle, comes from the Latin gurgulio, and the Old French gargouille, not only meaning "throat" but also describing the "gurgling" sound made by water as it ran through the figure. Superstition held that gargoyles frightened away evil spirits while serving their practical function. After the lead drainpipe was introduced in the sixteenth century, gargoyles primarily served a decorative function.
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.
Gargoyles can be found in many types of Gothic architecture, but they are usually associated with the great churches and cathedrals of Europe, most notably the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, France.