A figurehead is a carved wooden figure placed at the prow or front of a ship, often representing a human or a real or mythological animal. The figurehead was most popular on European ships during the 16th through 19th centuries. A figurehead was typically ornately carved and painted, and often depicted the name of the ship. Figureheads are usually, though not always, female -- much like the names of ships.
The figurehead of the European sailing ships has ancient origins. The ancient Egyptians, Chinese, and Greeks painted eyes on the front of their boats to ward off evil spirits, and the Phoenicians used depictions of animals and deities. In the Roman era, full-length figures of gods and goddesses often adorned the front of ships. The dragons on the front and back of Viking ships can also be seen as precursors to the figurehead.
Shortly after figureheads were introduced on galleons in the 16th century, they became increasingly large and elaborate, often consisting of the entire figure of a woman, mermaid, or other creature. This trend, however, was short lived, as a large figurehead added significant weight to the front of the ship and could adversely affect the ship's aerodynamics. In later centuries, the typical figurehead became smaller, often consisting of only a bust, and many ships did not have a figurehead at all.
In their heyday, figureheads were the subject of some nautical superstition. Sailors from Germany, Holland, and Belgium believed that a spirit lived in the figurehead and protected the ship and its inhabitants from all kinds of harm. If the ship sank, the spirit would conduct the sailors to the afterlife, so sinking on a ship without a figurehead was extremely bad luck, causing the sailors' ghosts to haunt the sea for eternity. Cultures throughout Europe traditionally christened figureheads with a bottle of wine before a ship's maiden voyage.
With the decline of the sailing ship came the end of the figurehead, though many military ships carry on the tradition by featuring coats of arms on the prow. Today, the word figurehead is more often heard in a metaphorical context, referring to a person in a position of power who has no real authority. Symbolic rulers, such as those of the British monarchy, are often referred to as figureheads in this sense. However, this usage is sometimes frowned upon, as figurehead may be interpreted as pejorative, referring to a leader who is secretly controlled by an entity behind the scenes.