Flooding the land with limitless liquid, France's water-spouting gargouille was just as deadly as its more familiar fire-breathing brethren (public domain)*
When preparing my first book on dragons, Dragons: A Natural History, published in 1995, and in which I retell the myths and legends surrounding a wide variety of different dragons, I was particularly anxious to uncover the history of the example featured here in this present ShukerNature blog article. For despite having read many books and articles on dragons down through the years, I had never once seen a detailed account of this specific one.
Thanks, however, to some painstaking but rewarding library-based research (i.e. long before the internet had transformed into the limitless online fund of facts that it is today), I finally pieced together its thrilling story, first recorded in 1394, which I duly recounted in my book. Due to space considerations, unfortunately, my coverage needed to be abridged slightly for publication, but now, for the first time anywhere, I have great pleasure in presenting the original, unabridged version. So here is my full retelling of the rise and fall of one of dracontology's most memorable subjects – the very formidable water-spouting gargouille of France.
Detail featuring the gargouille from an 1862 engraving – see later here for the entire engraving (public domain)
Not all dragons spew flame or noxious vapour - some spout fountains of water, but to equally devastating effect. It was the year 620 AD, and Rouen, majestic capital of Normandy, was under siege - not by a foreign army, not even by some debilitating pestilence, but by something much more menacing, and lethal. It had emerged one pale morning from the waters of the Seine - at first a great scaled head, equipped with slender snout and jaws, heavy brows encircling a pair of nacreous eyes that gleamed like living moonstones, and borne upon a long neck like some strange reptilian swan.
As the waters cascaded down from its shoulders, however, the creature revealed itself to be an aquatic serpent dragon - of colossal, vermiform stature, ensheathed in a fine mail of glaucous scalloping, and sporting only a pair of membranous fins in place of true limbs.
After surveying its surroundings for a few moments, the great monster opened its mouth - and from the depths of its throat a tremendous jet of water sprang forth, engulfing the countryside, on every side, in an immense wave like an inexplicably-displaced oceanic tide.
Statue of St Romain at Notre Dame Cathedral in Rouen, France (© Siren-Com/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 4.0 licence)
From that day onwards, this terrifying creature - swiftly dubbed the gargouille ('gargler') by the local populace - mercilessly saturated the land with great fountains of water, until the entire region was imperilled by severe floods. Farmlands were totally devastated, and countless people perished. Many were devoured by the monster, others met their deaths by drowning when it wantonly capsized their boats as they sailed upon the Seine.
St Romain (aka Romanus), archbishop of Rouen, watched this unfolding catastrophe with mounting horror - and knew that he must act swiftly if the land were to be saved from the gargouille's dominion of destruction. Learning that the creature resided in a cave nestling within the Seine's banks, he decided to confront it there, and do whatever was necessary to quell its tyranny forever.
The entire engraving from 1862 portraying St Romain abating the gargouille's power, with the murderer alongside him (public domain)
Yet despite pleading for assistance from the region's besieged inhabitants, St Romain could not elicit the help of anyone to accompany him on his noble quest - until he encountered a prisoner condemned to death for murder. Mindful that his life was already forfeit, the prisoner had nothing to lose by facing a deadly water dragon in its grim lair - which is why he willingly agreed to journey with the archbishop even to what must have seemed like certain death.
Indeed, no sooner had the two brave men reached its cave than the dreadful gargouille appeared - rearing above them with jaws agape as it prepared to disgorge from its mighty gullet a teeming cataract that would blast them away to a cold, watery grave.
Procession of the gargouille into Rouen following its taming by St Romain – lithograph from c.1840 (public domain)
Even as the lethal tide bubbled upwards in the monster's throat, however, St Romain stepped forward, raised his arms high above their heads - and placed two fingers against one another in the shape of the Cross. Instantly, the dreadful beast sank down, its threatened torrent seeping harmlessly from between its jaws in an insipid trickle, its foaming fury thoroughly extinguished.
So complete was the transformation that the gargouille even allowed St Romain to bind its neck with his stole, enabling the murderer to lead it passively back to Rouen (a scenario readily reminiscent of St Martha's taming of another previously-ferocious French dragon, the tarasque - click here to read all about this six-legged, lion-headed, tortoise-shelled, flame-spurting horror!).
Following the gargouille's arrival, the vengeful townsfolk gathered all around it in droves, intent upon annihilating their onetime persecutor. And in accordance with their demands, the monster was duly put to death - though not by water, but by fire, until only a great heap of ashes remained to testify to its former existence.
The chimaera gargoyle of Notre Dame de Paris Cathedral, looking across the panorama of Paris, France, far below (public down)
These were cast into the Seine, but even today there are ample reminders of the fearsome gargouille. Deriving their name from and sharing their water-spouting talents with this infamous monster are the gargoyles, whose grotesque figures adorn countless churches and other buildings in France and elsewhere around the world. (Incidentally, not all gargoyles do spout water; those that don't are technically referred to as grotesques.)
As for the murderer, whose crime proved to have been the killing of a vicious ruffian who had vilely desecrated his wife, in recognition of his bravery and his loyalty to the archbishop he was pardoned and set free. Moreover, every year thereafter until as recently as 1790, the archbishop of Rouen was permitted by law to pardon one death-condemned criminal each Ascension Day (an act referred to as bishops' privilege).
Vintage line drawing of a dragonesque gargoyle (public domain)
From a strictly cryptozoological viewpoint, I can't help but wonder whether this legend was inspired at least in part, perhaps, by sightings of some cetacean such as a dolphin or small whale that may have conceivably found its way from the sea into the Seine, where such a creature, spurting forth from its blow-hole(s), would undoubtedly have attracted attention and possibly not a little wonder and fear from observers not previously familiar with such a beast. Alternatively, the entire legend may have been created specifically to enhance the standing of St Romain - as exemplified by those associated with St George and St Martha, it is by no means unknown for monster-featuring stories to be linked to saints, in which the latter confronts and conquers the monster, as a potent allegory of good vanquishing evil.
* This article-opening engraving actually depicts a sea serpent of the Heuvelmans super-otter category that was allegedly sighted on 6 July 1734 by Hans Egede, a Scandinavian Lutheran missionary, while on board his ship off the coast of Greenland - and not the river-inhabiting gargouille of France. However, the sea serpent's appearance as depicted in this engraving accords well with traditional descriptions of the gargouille - far better, in fact, than any image officially representing the gargouille that I have ever seen. Consequently, I have chosen to use it in this capacity here, and I did so in my 1995 dragons book too.
Statue of Hans Egede by August Saabye, at Marmorkirken in Copenhagen, Denmark (public domain)
For further dragon-related folklore and facts, please be sure to check out my two dragon books – Dragons: A Natural History, and Dragons in Zoology, Cryptozoology, and Culture.