Gargoyles, Grotesques, Dragons, and The Legend of the Dragon, by Ron Nehrig
Gargoyles and Dragons
There is a lack of agreement over the name and function of some of the strange looking beasts that adorn architecture in many parts of the world. Are they gargoyles, grotesques, chimeras or dragons?
There seems to be general agreement about the creatures that function to drain rain water from the parapet gutters of buildings; these are gargoyles or gurgoyles, (from the French gargouille, meaning the throat or gullet, the word representing the gurgling sound of water.) 1 Originally the term referred only to the carved lions of classical cornices or to terra-cotta spouts, such as those found in the Roman structures at Pompeii. The word later became restricted mainly to the grotesque, carved spouts of the European Middle Ages. It is often, although incorrectly, applied to other grotesque beasts, such as the chimères (chimeras) that decorate the parapets of Notre-Dame at Paris. The gargoyle of the developed Gothic period is usually a grotesque bird or beast sitting on its haunches on the back of a cornice molding and projected forward for several feet in order to throw the water far from the building. 2
The winged creature on the Maxwell Hall Roof is commonly called a gargoyle, but as it does not convey water it doesn't fit the description. It has even been called a griffin, though a griffin has the head of an eagle so it can't be that. What is it then, and why is it there? And what about the coiled Dragon to the left of the Maxwell doorway?
Chimera, or chimère, is another term commonly used for any grotesque, fantastic, or imaginary beast used in decoration, though a chimera, in Greek mythology is a fire-breathing female monster resembling a lion in the forepart, a goat in the middle, and a dragon behind, and in art, the Chimera may be represented as a lion with a goat's head in the middle of its back. The word is now used generally to denote a fantastic idea or figment of the imagination. 2
So the creature on Maxwell Hall's roof could loosely be called a chimera though this fits no better than gargoyle, but regardless of what it is called there doesn't seem to be a definitive reason why it, and Maxwell's coiled dragon, have been put on buildings, at least not in the Western World. China, however, has a very old legend that explains these creatures and both of Maxwell Hall's carvings may be explained by the Legend of the Dragon. Take particular notice of the second and ninth son, but keep the legend in mind the next time you see a dragon. Creatures such as this have been used as ornamentation in China for thousands of years. Have they been adopted by other cultures, though we no longer know why?
The Legend of the Dragon
Dragons in many forms are found in China, Japan, Korea, Mongolia, and Indochina. In China the dragon dates back at least 6,000 years to a dragon made of mussel shells discovered in a grave in Ziyank, Henan Province, and has appeared on utensils made of bronze or bone in the Shang and Zhou dynasties 3,000 years ago. There are more than 100 ways of writing the dragon character.
According to the Chinese legend, the Dragon had nine sons with different appearance, temperament and jobs, and they are found in different places.