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History lesson: Guardians and guidance ... The history of ship figureheads - Subscriber Access Only

By BCShippingNews 06 July 2017

During the age of sail, a figurehead placed on the prow of a ship was common practice. Dating back thousands of years, these works of art sadly died out as naval architecture progressed and we eventually moved away from large-scale wooden ships. 

Figureheads are thought to have originally provided protection for the vessel and its crew. There is evidence of Egyptian examples dating back to 3000 B.C.E. The Egyptians normally painted eyes on the ship as a way for the vessel to “see.” However, it was most likely the Phoenicians who first started using figurines on the bows of their ships. Their figureheads usually depicted gods, birds, animals and serpents. But it was the Phoenician horse, which symbolized speed, that was one of the earliest uses of a wooden figurehead. Other ancient cultures also used figureheads throughout history. The Greeks depicted a boar’s head to represent ferocity, the Romans portrayed centurions, representing valour in battle, and the Norse cultures used dragons and serpents to display fierceness.

Photo above: From the lobby of the Vancouver Maritime Museum: Steady Eddie from the prow of HMS Pilot.