History lesson: Guardians and guidance ... The history of ship figureheads

By BCShippingNews
July 6 2017
From the lobby of the Vancouver Maritime Museum: Steady Eddie from the prow of HMS Pilot.
By Lea Edgar, Vancouver Maritime Museum

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.

The practice truly picked up from 1400-1600 when various European nations were vying for oceanic supremacy. Vast armadas used figureheads as intimidation and shows of force and wealth. In the 16th century, figureheads embodied the very spirit of the ship, and were sometimes a literal representation of the ship’s name. The British Admiralty often made use of the classic symbol of the lion on their frigates. However, many varieties of characters were carved to represent the vessel’s identity. These included animals, nobility, warriors, cultural icons, mermaids and perhaps most popular, women. The superstition behind the prevalent use of a female character — often topless — was that she would appease the sea, carrying on the tradition of figureheads securing the vessel’s safety.

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