An ornamental carved and painted figure erected on the beakhead, stem, or bowsprit of a seafaring vessel.
Early figureheads were totemic, charged with religious symbolism and in some cases serving as the emblem of the ship's soul. The figureheads were in some sense propitiatory, as they were considered charms against the vagaries of the sea, its mythical properties, monsters, and merfolk. Also, ancient sea-superstition held that a ship needed eyes to find its way across the waters.
The Egyptians drew on an extensive pantheon of cultural symbology for their figureheads, though the image of the holy birds were standard. Phoenicians used the heads of horses to symbolize both vision and swiftness. Greek ships had boar's heads, for their swift and ferocious reactions, and acrostolia - symbolic ornaments in the shape of shields or helmets meant to ward off evil. Roman ships often carried the figure of a centurion to indicate their dedication to the warrior spirit.
Early Western European Figureheads
William the Conqueror's ship had a lion's head carved on the top of her stem. By the 13th century, one of the favorite figureheads for European ships was the head and neck of the graceful, swift-winged swan.
Early Northern European Figureheads
In Northern Europe, the favorite decoration for the high stem of the longship was a serpent. However, some Danish ships had dolphins or bull's heads. Sweyn's entire longship looked like a dragon, with the head as the figurehead and the tail carved into the sternpost.
The figurehead suffered a hiatus between the 14th and 16th centuries due to design changes in shipbuilding. The new carrack and galleon designs had their forecastles built above and beyond the ship's stem, leaving no room for the figurehead. Between 1540 and 1640, the long beakhead became more rounded, almost as if the ship was puffing out its chest. The figurehead returned, now perched atop the beakhead.
Of the larger ships which formed the navy of Elizabeth I, five had a figurehead of a lion (Charles, Defiance, Repulse, Rainbow, Garland). Five had a dragon (Bonaventure, Adventure, Dreadnought, Nonpareil, Hope), and one (Mary Rose) a unicorn. The Swiftsure had a tiger, and the White Bear had a figure of Jupiter sitting on an eagle. Dutch and Spanish ships of the time predominantly favored lions as figureheads, while the French went in for more elaborate figureheads (Neptune driving a pair of seahorses, Jupiter sitting on an eagle).
17th c. Figureheads
While the lion remained the most popular choice through the 17th century, some had more elaborate designs. The English Prince Royal of 1610 had a figurehead of St. George slaying the dragon. The Sovereign Seas of 1637 had a figurehead of King Edgar on horseback trampling seven kings. The Naseby (one of Oliver Cromwell's Commonwealth Navy ships) showed Cromwell on horseback trampling representatives from six nations underfoot, clearly identifiable by their dress: a Scot, an Irishman, a Dutchman, a Frenchman, a Spaniard, and an Englishman.
18th c. Figureheads
During this century, the traditional lion was replaced by figureheads which more typically signified the name of the ship. Statues of statesmen abounded until Lord Sandwich, First Lord of the Admiralty, introduced many classical names into the British Navy, giving the carvers more creative subjects upon which to ply their craft.
19th c. Figureheads
Budgetary restrictions in the British navy led to yet another decline in the carving of figureheads. French warships continued unabated, particularly during the reign of Louis XVI, when he was often depicted seated on his throne, with representations of Fame or Victory about to place a laurel on his head, or riding in a chariot with chained captives at his side. The Revolution put an end to this, of course - while proferring its own bizarre alternative (the frigate Carmagnole had a model of a guillotine for her figurehead).
Merchant Ship Figureheads
Merchant ships followed naval practice fairly closely up to about 1800, and the advent of the clipper ship. The graceful lines of the clipper ship invited voluptuously carved figures of women - although these carvings always had one or both breasts bared, out of respect for sailor's superstition: women were in general thought to be unlucky on board ship, but a naked woman was supposed to be able to calm a storm at sea.
Iron vs. the Maiden
The advent of the ironclad and the steam engine transformed ship design and eliminated the bowsprit under which the figurehead was traditionally placed. Figureheads have now all but disappeared, although there has been some movement toward their revival for purely decorative purposes.
The Oxford Companion to Ships and the Sea
For Everything Quests - The High Seas