What Was The Ship’s Original Figurehead?

What Was The Ship's Original Figurehead - Merchant Navy Info - Blog

The history of shipbuilding dates back to the Middle Ages, when sailing in front of a ship was made by joining wooden boards together. Since then, the shipbuilding process has undergone major changes, ultimately leading to the construction of modern superyachts and cruise ships. However, even in modern times, building a ship is still a very complex and time-consuming process. Involving several interesting manufacturing steps, from installing the keel to naming. One of the attractions of shipbuilding is the decoration of the front of a ship, especially today’s luxury cruise ships. However, in the early days of shipbuilding, decorations and carvings. Various forms of ships had a large presence, including ship figureheads.

A ship’s figurehead is a carved wooden ornament on the prow of a ship. Popular from the 16th to the 20th century. Ship figureheads were the pinnacle of ancient shipbuilding and architecture until developments in shipbuilding and architecture made them obsolete. However, these decorations can be considered remarkable relics of maritime history. The figurehead is made primarily of wood.  Represented the front of a ship and contributed to the unique identity of the front of a ship itself. The true motivation behind installing a carved figurehead on the bow of a ship remains unclear. However, it is a confirmed fact that these decorations were used in the past. When it was believed that these icons had strong magical or religious meanings.

Origin and Use of Ship Figureheads 

The origins of figureheads or similar decorations date back thousands of years to the ancient Greeks or later. It is believed that this wooden statue was first used by the Phoenicians. And later by the Egyptians, but the actual year of its use is unknown. The use of figureheads was reportedly common on galleons used from the 15th century to the 18th century. This tradition passed from the Phoenicians and Egyptians. To the Orientals and Europeans during its heyday in the 13th century. And continued until the last remnants of the tradition in the early 20th century. During this time, the actual purpose of the figurehead began to diverge and change slightly. During the Baroque era, elaborate carvings were common on luxury ships.

Historical Documents 

Show that the front of ships built in ancient Greece had eyes painted on either side of the bow. And the Romans later adopted this idea and placed a figurehead on the bow. did. The architectural delicacy of the woodcarvers and the resulting beauty of the figureheads meant that they formed a unique entity, where protection was once the sole motto of these sculptures. For uneducated sailors, these figureheads became pseudonyms for front of ships. Therefore, ships were often identified, marked, and recognized not by their names, but by their figureheads on board. Similarly,  figureheads on naval ships were intended to demonstrate the wealth and power of their owners.


They were sculptures of the spirit of the ship in the form of people, animals, or mythical figures. The actual purpose of installing replicas of Egyptian and Phoenician sailor figureheads, sacred birds, and horses, respectively, was to ensure the protection of the ship and her crew. The toothed and bug-eyed figureheads used on  Viking ships were intended to protect ships from evil spirits, while the ancient Greeks’ use of a boar’s head symbolized acumen and ferocity. It was intended to. The Romans, on the other hand, used sculptures of centurions to represent bravery in battle.

In contrast, carved wooden figures of dragons, dolphins, snakes, and bulls were the most common ship figureheads for the Norsemen. In the 13th century, the Norsemen introduced the swan as a symbol of grace and agility. Subsequently, the figure of a lion and a partially clothed woman aboard a British ship became the most commonly used figurehead around the world. 

Popular Tradition

A very popular tradition regarding figureheads is that they were once depicted with reference to common anecdotes about the sea. For example, a popular sign of a topless woman represented an offering to the sea to placate it. This was completely contrary to the generally accepted norm that a woman on board the front of a ship would distract the sailors and divert them from their original course. And sailors of that time believed that mermaid songs led to shipwrecks on coral reefs and rocky areas. However, they believed that the statuette of a bare-breasted woman would charm the gods and spirits of the sea with its beauty,  thereby allowing the ship to continue sailing without harm. Similarly, the prows of British ships often featured carvings of clothed women.

These included sculptures of female kings such as Queen Victoria. In addition to carvings of the Virgin Mary, Jesus, and the Apostles, mythical creatures such as dragons and giant serpents are also used, indicating the front of a ship’s origins. Statues of powerful political leaders were believed to bring good luck and wealth, so in later years they also appeared as the prows of state and private ships.

The Limits of the Figurehead and the Decline of its Use 

During the centuries between the 17th and his 18th century, the ship’s figurehead was an essential style for any ship. The large figurehead at the bow was part of the ship’s appeal, but it also made the ship difficult to maneuver. In the past, heavy wooden figureheads significantly increased the weight of ships and caused great difficulties when sailing. Initially, elm was used as a carving medium, but in later years wood species such as teak, pine, and oak were preferred to reduce the weight of the final wooden sculpture. 

Similarly, these wood carvings required huge investments and created undesirable problems for ship owners and operators. Despite the contractor’s attempts to cut costs, the captain and other crew members reportedly requested the deployment of key personnel. Historical documents show that individual figureheads were sometimes reintroduced on larger ships due to pressure from captains, but captains of smaller ships were often willing to pay out of pocket for a suitable figurehead. It is said that there was not.


Figureheads then appeared in the 18th century, became smaller, and were abolished around 1800. However, over time, the big-name companies made a comeback, albeit with significant changes in size and investment. On the other hand, the introduction and development of non-wooden ships also led to the demise of these mascots. Additionally, new ships were more streamlined, so there was no room for a figurehead. Nevertheless, around the time of  World War I.

Certain ships, especially German and British ships, were equipped with these mascots, but the tradition was already in decline by that time. The appearance of large battleships also led to the abolishment of figureheads.  HMS Rodney was the last British battleship to carry a figurehead, although smaller vessels in the Royal Navy continued to carry figureheads. However,  warships still bear badges. Badges are large plaques  on the superstructure with  unique designs related to the ship’s name or role

The Fate Of The Figurehead 

As already mentioned, the popularity of wooden figureheads ended with the disappearance of wooden vessels. Changes in the shipbuilding process eventually left behind the tradition of building figureheads for ships, replacing them with elegant architecture. In addition, new decorative forms introduced in the 20th century also replaced ship figureheads. And were introduced to galleries and museums. This transition began in the early ’90s with his introduction of two-dimensional art. Which was one of the biggest threats to such traditional decoration. Today, however, the descendants of such decorations are installed on many commercial vehicles in the form of stuffed animals, so figureheads are adopted in different forms on the market.

Royal Museums Greenwich is one of his works, with a collection of figureheads tracing the history of ship decoration from the 17th century to the 20th century. According to the museum, the collection includes 93 figureheads and 111 numbered sculptures from the royal yachts Her Victoria and Albert III. In addition, the museum has approximately 42  different decorative ship carvings, including road boards, stern boards, stern statues, etc. These sculptures now occupy highly prized places in maritime museums and archives, attracting the attention of maritime enthusiasts, history students, and other researchers. Their locations are of great importance because they help us understand maritime history and the successes of very different eras that would otherwise be unknown.

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