The ship figureheads located on the bow of vessels were the highlight of ancient shipbuilding and architecture, till their redundancy on account of developments in vessel-building and architecture.
Figureheads on ships can be regarded as noteworthy relics of maritime history. Built primarily of wood, a figurehead prominently represented the frontal part of the vessel, contributing to a singular identity to the vessel itself.
The earliest usage of the wood statue is reported to be by the Phoenicians and later on by Egyptians, though the actual years are unknown. The actual intended premise of incorporating a ship figurehead by the Egyptian and Phoenician seafarers was to ensure absolute protection for the vessel and her crew.
From the Phoenicians and the Egyptians, the tradition passed onto the Orientals and to the Europeans, in the hey-days of the 13th century, continuing up to the tradition’s last dregs in the early 20th century. It is in these times that the actual purpose of the figurehead started to slightly digress and vary.
The architectural subtlety of the wood carvers and the resultant beauty of the figureheads led to them being an entity in their own right, where once protection was the only motto of these carvings. For illiterate and uneducated seafarers, these figureheads became the vessel’s pseudonym. Thus in many cases, the vessels came to be identified, tagged and known by the figureheads on ships rather than their name itself.
A very popular lore about the figureheads is that they used to be depicted according to the prevalent anecdotes about the sea. For example, a popular figurehead of a topless lady represented an offering to the oceans to appease it. This was quite contrary to the otherwise accepted norm that women aboard vessels would cause the sailors to become distracted and thus steering them away from their original route. The figurine of a topless lady, however, would entice the ocean Gods and spirits to its beauty, thereby enabling the vessel to proceed on course without any harm befalling it.
Like the beautiful and topless lady, mythical creatures – indicative of vessel’s origins – like dragons and huge snakes were used as were carvings of Mother Mary and Jesus and the apostles. Likewise, there used to be a huge difference between a wood sculpture used in a navy ship and a mercantile or a passenger vessel. During the century spanning the 1700s and the 1800s, ship figureheads were the style in vogue, a style no ship could do without.
Unique Features of Figureheads
The figureheads were made of wood. This was perhaps the biggest problematic aspect about these sculptures. The wood statue used to increase the weight of the vessel substantially because of its own enormity in size. This led to considerable difficulties while using sails to sail the vessel. On a similar note, these wood carvings also required a huge investment which caused unwanted problems for the vessel owner or operator.
While initially elm was used as a carving medium, in the latter years, wood varieties like teak, pine and oak were preferred to reduce the weightiness of the final wood sculpture.
The introduction and development of non-wood vessels primarily led to the decline of these mascots. Additionally, since the newer vessels were more streamlined, there was left no place to position the figureheads. However certain vessels did equip these mascots at the time of the First World War, especially German and British ships, though by that time, the tradition had already started to ebb.
Figureheads on ships, these days find a very valuable place in marine museums and repositories. Their place is vital because they help us understand maritime history and success of an altogether different era, about which, we might have had no idea otherwise.