History and Purpose of Ship Figureheads

What do the figures on the front of ships mean

Have you ever wondered about the beautiful wooden carvings that adorned the front of most ships in the 16th to 20th centuries? Besides being absolute marvels of craftsmanship, they certainly must have a use, right? The purpose of ship figureheads is quite interesting, and you might be surprised about why they were so popular.

Origin/History of Figureheads

The origin of ship figureheads and similar decorations does back thousands of years. Figureheads were used by the ancient Greeks, but it's likely that they were in use even earlier than that. Some reports point to the Egyptians or Phoenicians as the earliest example, though specific examples and years aren't known.

The figurehead became more commonly used as galleons rose to popularity around the 13th century. Figureheads reached their peak around the 16th century, and from the point on almost every kind of ship displayed a figurehead of some sort. The practice began to decline in the 19th century, and by the 20th they were all but a relic.

History and Purpose of Ship Figureheads mermaid boat

Why Were They Used? Practically

Ship figureheads were practical for a variety of reasons. Chief among these reasons is as a sort of identifier. There was a vast majority of the population during these periods in history that lived their entire lives entirely illiterate. Some of these figureheads would be used by the lower classes as ship identifiers.

I suppose that makes good sense. Can't read the words on the side? Just call it 'the one with the ram on the front'. Some of the same figureheads were used across endless ships, but they all had slight differences. How many half-naked mermaid figureheads have you seen? Well, there are slight differences between them. Is it the mermaid that's missing her nose or the one with the scar on her face?

Why Were They Used? Spiritually

The ship's figurehead was widely accepted by most world cultures to represent the spirit of the ship itself. My boat Charis would probably have the goddess herself hanging off the front. Our sailing partners on the Drunken Monkey would have, well... A monkey holding a beer stein, I assume. Not as majestic. You can see why this practice has largely fallen out of style.

Aside from being the spiritual representation of the ship, it is also believed to protect the ship from any disasters that might befall it. A figurehead of Poseidon might calm the seas, where something like a ram might provide the strength to fight your way through a storm no matter the odds. Maybe storms aren't your concern? A swan figurehead can represent grace and mobility on the water. Symbolism is strong when it comes to figureheads.

History and Purpose of Ship Figureheads sailor boy boat

What Creatures Make Good Figureheads?

The only real caveat that a figurehead has to meet is that it needs to have eyes. Without eyes a ship can't find its own way. Since that is the only stipulation, the shapes that a vessel's figurehead can take is extremely varied. Gods and goddesses are always a solid pick, animals are seen quite often as well though they usually pick something a bit more conventional than an ape.

Dolphins, snakes, swans, and bulls are seen fairly often, particularly in European vessels. Mythological creatures are also common picks. Mermaids are everywhere, but things like dragons and minotaurs are out there as well. The Egyptians were particularly fond of holy birds, Phoenicians tended to use the head of a horse to symbolize vision and swiftness.

Greeks had a somewhat unconventional pick in my opinion... They used the boar for its ferocity. The Romans didn't use an animal at all. Instead opting to go for a representation of their own fighting prowess with a carving of a centurion. It seems a bit self-absorbed to me, but it seems like it was functional enough to strike fear into the hearts of those that laid eyes on it.

The lion was a very common pick for warships of almost every nation for obvious reasons. A nude woman also tended to be quite popular, but probably not for the reason that you think. There is a sailor's superstition that states women are bad luck on a ship, but a nude woman is supposed to calm rough seas.

History and Purpose of Ship Figureheads maori boat

What Are They Made From?

Depending on the importance of the ship, some figureheads could be quite large. The Prince Royal circa 1610 had a depiction of St. George slaying the dragon. These larger figureheads carved from hardwood created some weight problems. In the 17th century they were primarily elm but this shifted toward the lighter oak in the early to mid 18th century.

An order issued by the Navy Board in 1742 dictated that figureheads should be made from soft woods such as pine. Deal and teak were also quite popular due to their resistance to decay and wood-boring insects. Once ships began to shift from wood to iron the ship figurehead declined and they eventually disappeared almost entirely.

Caring for Boat Wood

Teak is still a popular wood to use on boats and ships for the same reasons as stated above. It generally isn't use as something defunct like a figurehead, instead it is usually found on the deck of a boat. This means that it experiences much more wear and tear. Luckily it's relatively easy to protect and brighter your teak deck with Better Boat's boat deck teak brightener. Protecting the rest of your boat from UV damage can be just as simple with out boat cleaner UV protector wipes.