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The History of Ship Figureheads

Ancient History | June 18, 2019

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. 

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

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. 

Ancient Greek ships had eyes, the forerunners of true figureheads. Source: (pinterest.com)

Figureheads in Antiquity

The Phoenicians, some of the greatest early sailors and navigators, have carved wooden statues on their boats. This practice was adopted by the Egyptians. Early Greek sailing ships had large eyes painted on either side of the bow. The eyes were supposed to help the ship navigate through treacherous waters and to see the dangers lurking ahead, in a figurative sense. The Romans adopted this concept but took it one step further by using a fully carved bust instead of just eyes. 

Figureheads became a form of identification for ships. Source: (pinterest.com)

Helping the Uneducated Sailors

The ship’s figurehead did have a practical purpose. In those days, very few sailors were literate. The ship’s figurehead was an identifying symbol of the ship. So many sailors referred to ships by their figureheads that the ship’s names were sometimes lost to the image on the bow. 

Figurehead from a Viking ship. Source: (schools2.cic.ames.cam.ac.uk)

Symbols of Might and Power

The figureheads used on ancient warships of the Phoenicians, Vikings, Greeks, and Romans were created to intimidate the enemy and to show off the power of the military. Viking longboats often had dragons and serpents as figureheads. The Greeks used lions and boars. Later, by the 13th century, figureheads were carved into the shape of swans to depict grace, swiftness, and nobility. 

The Germans through fairies lived in the ship's figurehead. Source: (shippingwondersoftheworld.com)

The German Kaboutemannekes

Sailors from Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Scandinavia believed that each ship had a resident sprite, fairy or brownie called a Kaboutemannekes. The spiritual creature lived in the ship’s figurehead and watched over the sailors on the boat. Among the tasks of the Kaboutemannekes was to guide the ship around rocks, keep it steady during storms, and protect the men from sickness. When ships sunk, it was believed, the Kaboutemannekes escorted the souls of the dead sailors to the underworld. 

Figureheads of beautiful women were meant to appease the sea gods. Source: (theantiquitiesalmanac.com)

The Scantily Clad Woman

One of the most common types of figureheads is the beautiful young woman, which is why an alternative name for figureheads is maidenheads. During the 12th through 17th centuries, sailors had superstitions about women aboard their ships so it may be surprising that they opted to use a female figurehead. Woman on ships, it was thought, would pose too much of a distraction for the sailors and they would become lost. The female figurehead, however, was not designed to appeal to the sailors on the ship, but to the gods of the ocean. If the beauty of the topless or scantily clad maidenhead caught the interest of the sea gods, then the gods may look favorably upon the vessel and allow it safe passage. 

The Figureheads Hall at the Italian Naval Museum. Source: (do-in-italy.com)

The Demise of the Figurehead

Figureheads were such an important part of sailing that nearly every ship built through the 1800s had an ornate figurehead on its bow. But these figureheads had their drawbacks. First, they were expensive to make. Artists and carvers were commissioned to create them and they charged a pretty penny. Second, they were heavy. Originally, the figureheads were carved of oak or elm, but they added a considerable amount of weight on the vessel, slowing it down. Pine and balsa figureheads replaced the heavier wooden ones but still added unnecessary weight. They were also intrusive. Figureheads got in the way of sailing the ship. Lastly, the public as a whole became less superstitious as the 1800s came to a close. Sailors no longer feared sailing on a ship without a figurehead for protection. Their wide-spread use declined in the 20th century. Today, many old figureheads have been salvaged from ships and preserved in maritime museums. 

Tags: nautical figureheads | tall ships

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.