Exploring the Fascinating History of Ship Figureheads

Ship figureheads are decorative symbols or figures that were formerly affixed to a ship’s conspicuous location, generally the bow. A figurehead may represent a national symbol, a religious symbol, or the name of the ship.

Likely, the practice of painting an eye on either side of a vessel’s prow originated in ancient Egypt or India, where the eyes were thought to aid a vessel in securely navigating over water. The Chinese, the Phoenicians, the Greeks, and the Romans all adhered to the tradition, painting eyes on their river junks.

Origin and History

The side planking was fastened to large vertical timbers in the bow and stern of the ships built by the ancient Egyptians, Phoenicians, Greeks, and early Romans. The conspicuous and semierect location and form of the stemposts and sternposts formed a focal point of interest and a shape that was meant for adornment since they protruded well above the hull. As early as 1000 BC, ships were identified from one another by carving and painting their stem- and sternposts. One type of vessel utilized an emblem that was typically seen on the bows of Egyptian funeral barges on the Nile River: a falcon or a falcon’s eye.

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The most common symbol employed by early seafarers was the oculus, but other figureheads were made specifically to frighten less advanced nations. The Egyptians are likely the ones who first introduced the practice of using engravings and paintings of their primary deity to identify vessels with their city-states, which other Mediterranean peoples later adopted. For instance, the Athenians employed a statue of Athena, whereas the Carthaginians frequently used a carving of Amon.

Ship’s Figurehead
(Credit: The Historic England Blog)

As a weapon for ramming and piercing enemy vessels, the prow was embellished with the so-called ram. The entire ram on one 500 BC Athens vase was carved to resemble the head of a boar. In order to use the prow as a battering ram, the ship’s notable bow features had to be lowered. During the height of their naval dominance, the Romans took this trend a step further and adorned their ships with a very tall sternpost that was carved to sweep up and around in elegant curves, ending, for instance, in the gilded head of a swan.

The common sea tales were originally intended to represent the figureheads, according to a widely held myth. A nude woman figurehead symbolized a tribute made to the seas to placate them. According to popular belief, women on board would divert sailors’ attention and cause them to veer off course.

Also, sailors once believed that mermaids’ music guided shipwrecks on coral reefs. The topless lady figurine, they believed, would attract the spirits and Gods of the sea to its beauty, allowing the ship to sail without incident. Similar sculptures of clothed women decorated the bows of British ships.

Among them were the sculptures of female regal figures, such as Queen Victoria. In addition to Mother Mary, Jesus, and the apostles, dragons and enormous snakes were also used as symbols of the vessel’s origin. Later periods saw the appearance of well-known political figures as the ship figureheads of both publicly and privately owned vessels, with the belief that the statues of influential political figures would bring good fortune and prosperity.

Figurehead limitations and a drop in usage

Figurehead limitations
(Credit: Boat Safe)

Ship figureheads were the in thing during the 1700s and 1800s, a century that no ship could go without. Ships with big figureheads on the bows were difficult to navigate due to their size. Wooden figureheads added significant weight to the ship, making sailing extremely challenging. Later, teak, pine, and oak were chosen instead of elm for lighter wood sculptures.

Similar issues related to these wood carvings arose for the vessel’s owner or operator since they required substantial expenditures. Even when the builder tried to cut costs, the captains and other crew members insisted on substantial figures. Captains of smaller ships were prepared to pay even out of pocket for appropriate figureheads, while commanders of larger ships occasionally forced the reinstatement of customized figureheads.

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Subsequently, the figureheads that first appeared in the 18th century shrank and were eventually eliminated around 1800. In a subsequent era, the figureheads did, however, resurface, but with much-altered investment and size. These mascots also began to disappear at the same time as non-wooden vessels were developed and introduced. Additionally, there was nowhere left to place the figureheads because the modern vessels were more streamlined. Even yet, certain ships—particularly German and British ships—did have these mascots during the First World War, but the custom had already begun to fade by then.

Figureheads were eliminated as a result of the arrival of large battleships. HMS Rodney was the final British battleship with a figurehead, however, smaller Royal Navy ships kept the figures on display. Nonetheless, the warships continue to be equipped with badges, which are large plaques with distinctive designs affixed to the superstructure and connected to the name or function of the ship.

What happened to figureheads?

As previously said, the demise of wooden vessels brought an end to the vogue of wooden figureheads. The shipbuilding process gradually changed to favor graceful architecture instead of installing ship figureheads. New embellishments made in the 20th century changed the figureheads on the vessels, which made them exhibitable.

During the early 1990s, two-dimensional art became one of the major threats to conventional decorations. In today’s market, figureheads are now available as stuffed creatures that are mounted on a lot of commercial vehicles.

Among them is the Royal Museums at Greenwich, which houses a collection of figureheads dating from the seventeenth century to the twentieth century. Besides 111 numbered carvings from the Royal Yacht Victoria and Albert III, there are 93 figureheads in the collection. Various ornate ship carvings are also on display at the museum, such as trail boards, stern boards, and stern figures.

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