The History of Ship Figureheads

By | June 5, 2019

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Nautical figurehead of Norwegian sail training ship Christian Radich, a tall ship participating in the Tall Ships Races 2016 arrival day on July 22, 2016 in Lisbon, Portugal. Source: (Photo by Horacio Villalobos - Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images)

Ever wonder why all the ships from long ago had a carved figure of a woman, animal, or warrior on their bows? These maidenheads, or figureheads, served as the face of the ship as it was plowing through the water. They were a symbolic figure – which is why today, we use the term ‘figurehead’ to mean a leader without real power or authority – meant to protect the sailors, bring good omens, and intimidate the enemies. Here is the unique history of figureheads. 

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Medieval tapestry shows figureheads on the bows of ships. Source: (

Medieval Shipbuilding

Although humans had been using crude rafts and canoes to navigate the waters for thousands of years, large sailing vessels capable of ocean travel were a medieval invention. Ocean travel was a dangerous undertaking, so shipbuilders included symbols and decorations that were meant to ward off evil spirits and bring luck to the sailors. One of these was the figurehead, the carved wooden bust of a person or animal that was mounted on the bow of the ship.