Joshua asks: Where does the term figure head come from?

Chris Riley by Chris Riley Updated on August 9, 2019. In

Boat Safe is a community supported site. We may earn comission from links on this page, but we have confidence in all recommended products.

The figure head is the carved ornamental and painted figure erected on the bow of ships. The origin of the figure head in the early days of seagoing was twofold; a mixture of religious symbolism and the treatment of the ship as a living thing.

Early sailors thought the figure head would please the sea gods and bring protection to the vessel at sea. They also felt that a ship needed to find her own way across the water, and could only do so if she had eyes.

figurehead.jpg (12049 bytes) The ancient Egyptians provided both protection and eyes by mounting figures of holy birds on the bows; the Phoenicians used the heads of horses to symbolize both vision and swiftness; Greek ships had a boar’s head for both its quick sight and ferocious reaction; Roman ships often carried a carving of a centurion to indicate their fighting quality. In the thirteenth century one of the favorite figure heads was the head and neck of a swan, possibly in the hope that the ship would possess the same mobility and stability as that bird upon the water. Other figure heads over the years have been lions, leopards, antelopes, dolphins, unicorns, dragons, tigers, eagles and many men such as St. George slaying a dragon and King Edgar on horseback.

With the advent of the clipper ship, with her graceful lines, the figure head blossomed, usually into a single figure. Figures of women were more popular than men or animals and began to replace them almost exclusively. Although women were thought to be unlucky on a ship, it was thought that a woman as a figure head could calm the seas.

(I don’t make this stuff up, I just report it!)

(FYI – Figure head can be written as one word, figurehead, but according to my nautical dictionary figure head is the preferred use.)


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

More in kids



Kid’s Korner

How Do Hydrodynamics Affect Boating?

All content is © Copyright 2020. All rights reserved.