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What is a Figurehead?

Niki Acker
Updated May 23, 2024
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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.

WikiMotors is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Niki Acker
By Niki Acker
"In addition to her role as a WikiMotors editor, Niki Foster is passionate about educating herself on a wide range of interesting and unusual topics to gather ideas for her own articles. A graduate of UCLA with a double major in Linguistics and Anthropology, Niki's diverse academic background and curiosity make her well-suited to create engaging content for WiseGeekreaders. "
Discussion Comments
By anon226058 — On Oct 29, 2011

That was really interesting and well-written. Thank you!

By anon136489 — On Dec 22, 2010

To Niki Foster: Thanks for this. Can you provide some references, suggested reading, bibliography, etc.? I'm especially interested in ancient times.

Niki Acker
Niki Acker
"In addition to her role as a WikiMotors editor, Niki Foster is passionate about educating herself on a wide range of...
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