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The History of Ship Figureheads

Chris Riley by Chris Riley Updated on October 26, 2021. In kids

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One of the most striking and prominent features on any old ship is the ship figurehead. A carved figure displayed prominently on the bow, these ornamental displays are iconic. Their origins stretch back further than some might think. And their meaning and purpose is multi-fold. These figureheads were symbolic, hence the name. But they were also thought to bring power and luck in battle, and to ward off danger. They could intimidate the enemy or protect the crew depending on the beliefs of the ship makers at the time. They also served as a quick identifier. If a ship was in port with dozens or hundreds of others, crew could easily spot their vessel by the figurehead.

True, large scale figureheads did not emerge in history until the medieval period. This would have been sometime in the 1500s. It was during this time that the construction of large sea-faring galleons emerged. These massive vessels could support the weight of large, ornate figureheads. However, the inspiration dated back earlier.

How Were Figureheads Made?

Ancient figureheads were carved wooden decoration for ships. In the early days, elm and oak were the woods of choice. These are hard, dense woods that can stand up well to life at sea. That’s why even today if you want good furniture, you look for oak. On the downside, they were also heavy. But the vessels on which they were fitted were big, bulky ships that could handle it.

Later on, when ship design and construction changed, so too did figureheads. Alternative woods became more popular. This was in order to make figureheads lighter and easier to manage. Yellow pine became one of the most popular choices in later years. The wood is easy to carve and not nearly as heavy as oak. It also manages to stand up fairly well to life at sea. This had to be one of the major concerns for any figurehead. If the wood rots away, it’s not much good to anyone.

These figureheads could have been carved from single pieces of timber. Sometimes they were carved from multiple pieces that were fastened together. An artisan would be carving these with some very basic tools of the trade. Hammers, chisels, saws and planing tools were all that was available at the time. That meant an extremely ornate figurehead could have taken months to produce. These would have cost several hundred British pounds at their most extravagant. Based on inflation rates these could have cost tens of thousands of dollars in today’s money.

Figureheads were often painted. Some were decorated for realism. They would be made to look like the real thing they represented. This was true of people or animals. Some would be left bare as simple woodgrain. There was also a tradition to paint them pure white. When this was done, the figureheads would end up resembling marble statues. Whether this was done by the Romans and or just to emulate Roman style statues is not known.

Ancient Sailing Ships

Prior to fully carved figureheads, other sailors used painted imagery. Have you ever seen a movie in which an ancient Greek army travels by sea? You may have noticed the ships had large eyes painted near the bow. These would symbolise acute vision. Other cultures around the world, including the Chinese and Egyptians, did similar things. Eyes, birds, and lions could be found depending on the culture. You might find Viking ships depicting dragons. They had bug eyed figureheads to help navigate and scare away evil spirits. These were considered magical. They could both ward off evil and protect the crew from danger at sea. In some cultures it was believed that spirits inhabited these figureheads. If a ship were to meet disaster at sea then the spirit in the figurehead would be needed. They would be able to guide the spirits of the dead sailors to the afterlife and save them from being lost forever.

You can find evidence of these early ship’s figureheads as far back as 3000 years ago. So the tradition is one with a lot of history and meaning. Whether as an item of magical or religious significance, they were valued by early crews.

The Rise of Naval Vessels

The Roman Empire was powerful and vast. As such, they upped the ante when it came to ship design. The Romans adopted fully carved figures for the bow of warships instead of just eyes or faces. For Romans, things like centurions might be used to display strength and power.

Over time, naval figureheads became more diverse in nature. Obviously any crew would want to differentiate itself from the pack. If a vessel was known to be swift, their figurehead might reflect this. A swan might be used to show grace and mobility. If it was a ship of war, then a lion or a dragon could show power and strength.

Some figureheads were carved to represent nobility. A king might travel on a ship that featured his own likeness in figurehead form. And, of course, the image of gods like Poseidon might be looked to as a boon to keep the crew safe.

Religious iconography was also used. Spanish ships in particular were fond of these figureheads. Saints might be depicted on the bows of their ships. In addition there could be members of the Holy Family. These would not just reflect the faith of the crew, but be invoked for protection. Any crew sailing with a saint at the bow would feel some comfort and protection on rough seas.

The Evolution of a Ship’s Figurehead

An alternative design for figureheads gave rise to an alternative name as well. You may have heard of them referred to as maidenheads. The imagery of a woman on the bow of the ship is fairly popular and often the women are depicted with long flowing hair. They may be very scantily clad or sometimes entirely naked.

Obviously a nude woman is not a fearsome image to intimidate the enemy. And in real life, many ships prohibited real women from even coming aboard. Women were historically considered very unlucky. But the woman as figurehead was thought to be beneficial. If the gods saw a beautiful woman, they might have mercy on the boat and the crew. It could also calm the seas and the wind and provide a smooth, safe journey. That was the thinking, anyway.

The Decline of the Figurehead

By the 1700s, naval might was integral to warfare around the globe. The British Navy was at its peak and things were tightly regulated. It was at this point in history that figureheads began to see a decline. The Royal Navy cut back on decorative touches on their vessels. The last thing they wanted were ships that stuck out in a crowd and looked unique and weird. Consider how the military works, after all. Do soldiers ever get to wear their own clothes? Keeping vessels looking the same was part of the process.

Low ranking ships were essentially banned from having any ornamentation. The cost, time and effort was not worth it. Higher ranker vessels could be given special dispensation. Again, consider something like an admiral or a general. They wear medals and rank insignia that make them stand out. So too could certain ships be adorned in a way that indicated a certain prestige.

The Return of the Figurehead

Amazingly, the figurehead did make a comeback. In the 1800s, clipper ships were invented. These vessels were long, narrow, graceful and fast. The design allowed for a remarkable amount of space on the bow for decoration. Full body figureheads became an option and many were extremely intricate and beautiful.

Ships Figureheads Today

The fact is you’re not going to find a fishing boat or even a yacht with a figurehead today. That’s not to say you can’t commission one, of course. But they’re generally considered unnecessary and even dangerous. A quality figurehead would have been carved from a single piece of wood. That meant a large, sturdy tree was felled to make it. The end result was a piece of art that could weigh upwards of four tons. Imagine trying to balance your boat with that on the bow.

Even smaller, more delicate figure heads could reach around 300 pounds. Not nearly as big but still, clunky. It would still offset the balance of the boat. Not to mention finding ways to secure it properly

As construction methods changed, so too did figureheads. Materials became lighter, stronger and more durable, figureheads became less popular. Plus, times change. The superstitions of old have mostly fallen by the wayside. You may still find a number of nautical superstitions around. But few of them have such practical issues.

Today we still name boats, another tradition that dates back many years. But when we want to be safe at sea we rely on technology and preparation to help us. There’s very little room for massive ornamentation any longer.

A Note on Names

You have seen these referred to with different spellings. Some choose figureheads while some choose figure heads. So is it one word or two? In modern parlance, figurehead is one word. This is how we use it to describe someone who may only have a ceremonial position. That usage does come from the same source. The figurehead of a ship was the face of a ship. In nautical terms, it is often broken up as two words. So figure head is as valid as figurehead. If you want to use the modern definition, then stick to one word.

The Bottom Line

These days you can see figureheads in maritime museums and online. Vessels from the merchant navy and other English ships have been preserved. You can Google things like the Long John Silver Collection given to Cutty Sark. Check out  the Royal Museums Greenwich and the Sammy Ofer Gallery. You can get a good idea of what a carved figurehead on a British battleship looked like here.

As a piece of nautical history, figureheads are fascinating. As art they’re quite beautiful. Odds are we’ll never see a resurgence in them for any practical purpose. But don’t let that stop you from decorating your vessel as you see fit.

About Chris

Outdoors, I’m in my element, especially in the water. I know the importance of being geared up for anything. I do the deep digital dive, researching gear, boats and knowhow and love keeping my readership at the helm of their passions.

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