Ship Figureheads

Figureheads - Mystic Seaport (Image source: Karatzas Marine Advisors)

Figureheads – Mystic Seaport (Image source: Karatzas Marine Advisors & Co.)

Since antiquity, the bow of vessels has not only been used to plow the waters efficiently, as a matter of function and purpose, but also it has been used as the anthropomorphic facade of an inanimate object to face the sea and the risks associate with it, known and unknown, the weather elements and the superstitions emanating from the limited body of knowledge at the time; like the hood and the masque of today’s cars, the elaborate construction of a vessel’s bow was also a symbol of wealth and power of the vessel owner (status symbol with today’s car market) but also medium of intimidation of the fighting enemy for military vessels of the times past.

Oculos - Trireme OLYMPIAS, Musée Hellénique de la Marine, Le Pirée 2 NOV2013

Okulos – Trireme OLYMPIAS, Musée Hellénique de la Marine, Le Pirée

Each seafaring culture has brought their own traditions and beliefs in the motifs of figureheads, usually a wooden figure mounted on the vessel’s bow or on top of the main block of wood where the keel was anchored and whose finishing was perceptive to artistic interpretation.  The earliest record that the prows of vessels were modified (decorated) beyond functional purposes date from the Egyptian times (usually depicting lotus or holy birds), while vessels of the Phoenicians were depicting horses for their vision and swiftness.  Ancient Greeks were decorating their vessels with figureheads of boar’s heads (again, symbol of vision and ferocity) or with the ‘seeing eye’ (or ‘okulos’) which when mounted on both sides of the bow seemed like the ‘eyes’ for the vessel that could look out for the right direction and route, away from harm’s way and storms.  Besides the metaphorical scope of looking out for the best route, the purpose of the eye also had been of an apotropaic eye to ward off evil influences, demons and bad spirits and monsters.  Often the prow was covered with the fleece of a votive animal sacrificed to the gods before the departure in order to appease them and ensure safe passage.

Provincial Roman or Germanic, 4th-6th century AD From the River Schelde near Appels, Oost Vlaanderen, Belgium (Source: Courtesy of the British Museum)

Provincial Roman or Germanic, 4th-6th century AD From the River Schelde near Appels, Oost Vlaanderen, Belgium (Image source: Courtesy of The British Museum)

The Romans preferred figureheads of centurions to indicate military prowess but also figureheads of serpents and monsters in order to intimidate their enemies.  The snake and sea serpent motifs were also preferred by the Vikings for their longships in their exploring the North Atlantic, while Danes often decorated the bows with wooden statues of dolphins, bulls or dragons.  By the 13th century, the swan is a common motif for the bows of vessels bringing in mind images of graceful mobility in the water.

With the construction of forecastles in the 16th and 17th century, the figureheads are mounted on the bowsprit, and the figureheads now are sizeable wooden statues of usually female or feminine-inspired figures. With Christianity as the dominant European religion, vessels are decorated with the Star of the Sea (Stella Maris) or images of the Holy Virgin.  Quite often, the figurehead is a female figure exposing one or both breasts, alluding to the belief that naked female breasts could calm the weather elements (unlike women onboard a vessel which was considered as a sign of bad luck.)

Figurehead Joseph Conrad (Image source: Karatzas Marine Advisors)

Figurehead Joseph Conrad (Image source: Karatzas Marine Advisors & Co.)

Figurehead Rickmer Rickmers (Image source: Karatzas Marine Advisors)

Figurehead Rickmer Rickmers (Image source: Karatzas Marine Advisors & Co.)

Cherokee Indian figurehead - Mystic Seaport (Image source: Karatzas Marine Advisors)

Cherokee Indian figurehead – Mystic Seaport (Image source: Karatzas Marine Advisors & Co.)


















The female figureheads in the 18th and 19th centuries may now represent the shipowner’s wife or daughter and are properly dressed, or could be figurative representations of the society ashore and people’s aspirations at the time or artistic influences in the carvings, the decorations and styling.  It was also acceptable to depict male figures as figureheads, usually the shipowner himself (square-rigger „Joseph Conrad” at the Mustic Seaport) or a son or favorite grandson (Rickmer Clasen Rickmers’ grandson Rickmer Rickmers is the little boy figurehead of the eponymous windjammer), but other male figures were acceptable alternatives, sometimes evocative of the origin or the trading routes the vessels are engaged to. Captain Death’s privateering ship aptly named the „Terrible” had skeleton as the figurehead while Surcouf’s French corsair „Revenant” carried a corpse. Military figures or representations of Olympian male gods, mythological figures, monks, saints, monarchs, etc were preferred figureheads for military vessels.

In the reign of Henry VIII (1509 – 1547), the lion became the general British figurehead, and remained popular until the end of George II’s reign (1727 – 1760). It was borne by such famous ships as the „Great Harry”, Elizabeth’s „Victory” (1569) and Sir Richard Grenville’s „Revenge” (1577), in the early days of the beak bow. In these vessels the figurehead took the form of a heraldic lion couchant or gardant. James I introduced the Scottish lion rampant, with a Royal Crown. Cromwell eliminated the crown, but Charles II restored it. He began also the custom of varying the figurehead for all first-rates, although the lion remained for ships of all other types.

Nannie Dee - Clipper Cutty Sark Figurehead

Nannie Dee – Clipper Cutty Sark Figurehead

A famous and historic figurehead has been Nannie Dee witch on the clipper vessel „Cutty Sark”, a mean-looking female figure with long hair, both breasts exposed and with her left arm extended to the sea, where fresh seamen were to make a ‘mini’ cat-‘o-nine-tails from old rope and place it her hand in order for her to tame the sea elements. Actually, the long hairy tail in her hand in the original story was supposed to be a mare’s tail according to the Tam O’Shanter legend!

By the mid-eighteenth century’s Royal Navy, the lion went out of fashion for ships of the second rate and below, and its place was taken by full-length figures. About this time classical names became more common for Navy ships, who were often borne by French prizes whose particularly gallant resistance had earned them a compliment of their names being retained on the British list. In such ships appropriate heads were often charming, but other vessels were given effigies of princes, politicians.

In the eighteenth century, the Admiralty made several unsuccessful efforts to abolish the figurehead because of its cost, also, a heavy figurehead projecting over the bow of the ship was a serious handicap to her sailing qualities due to weight and balance. In the 17th century, figureheads were made predominantly from elm, but usually from oak in the 18th century. After an order by the Navy Board in 1742, figureheads were made from soft woods, such as pine, while deal and teak were also used as these proved to be more resistant to wood-boring insects and decay. For man-of-war vessels there was also the consideration that figureheads could be partially damaged during battles, and thus it necessitated to figures with extremities kept close to the torso that also could be easily repairable. Similarly, the Admiralty attempted to restrict the colors to gilt or white, but since the bluejacket preferred something in more than natural colors, the authorities were tactful and often turned a blind eye.

Billethead - USS Constitution (Old Ironsides) (Image source: Naval History and Heritage Command)

Billethead – USS Constitution (Old Ironsides) (Image source: Naval History and Heritage Command)

The technological development of ships in the 19th century, from sail to steam and wood to iron, led to the gradual end of the naval figurehead and replacement by scroll work and “fiddleheads” or “billetheads” – the former curling inwards, the latter outwards, which were smaller, non-figural carving, most often a curl of foliage.  The loss of the bowsprit, under which the figurehead was traditionally placed, was the main reason for the disappearance of the figurehead. Figureheads for larger warships were finally abolished in Britain in 1894, but some smaller ships kept them until WWI (1914-1918). Later, ships had a medallion or shield (ship’s badge or ship’s seal or ship’s crest) a form of naval heraldry. The last ship to have a figurehead in the Royal Navy was  the HMS „Espiegle” (1880).

Hong Kong Maritime Museum - Antique figurehead, possibly of Guanyin (Goddess of Mercy) 19th century (Image source: Karatzas Marine Advisors)

Hong Kong Maritime Museum – Antique figurehead, possibly of Guanyin (Goddess of Mercy); 19th century; the fleur de lys (lilly) in the figurehead’s hand may evoke the lotus (water lilly) of Buddhism.  (Image source: Karatzas Marine Advisors & Co.)

Several private collections worldwide and also museums have put together worthwhile collections of ship figureheads, relating a small artistically and cultural important aspect of maritime tradition. The Royal Naval Museum at Portsmouth, the MarinMuseum in Karlskrona, Sweden, the Mystic Seaport Museum in Connecticut, the Hong Kong Maritime Museum, the South Australian Maritime Museum, and many more.

Hopefully, all these wooden figures will be preserved for future generations for their cultural value.

© 2013 Basil M Karatzas & Karatzas Marine Advisors & Co.  All Rights Reserved.

Figureheads at Galjonshallen Marinmuseum (Image source: courtesy MarinMuseum)

Figureheads at Galjonshallen Marinmuseum (Image source: courtesy MarinMuseum)

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3 thoughts on “Ship Figureheads

  1. Pingback: Ship’s Figurehead, the U.S. CGC „Eagle” | Full Steam Ahead! The Maritime Blog

  2. Pingback: Figurehead | Out The Sunroof

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