From ancient times through the 20th century, many ships mounted a statue, usually carved from wood, onto the ship's stem or bowsprit. Often, this figurehead depicted a female figure, perhaps a deity or other religious personage, while on other vessels this carving was of a real woman such as a monarch. The reasons for this female figurehead are varied but mostly connected to the superstitions of the sailors.
Some of the early beliefs regarding figureheads on ships were shared with other types of carved figureheads. For example, a number of different figureheads throughout history have been used symbolically as the eyes of the ship, since some sailors believed that if the ship had literal eyes, it would find its way on the waters better. The idea of placing a carving of a living thing at the ship's front also tied in to beliefs that the ship was spiritually a living thing; the figurehead was a representation of the spirit of a ship.
Identification and Representation
A female figurehead served a very practical purpose in the sense that it allowed sailors and those on land or on other vessels to identify a specific ship as it approached. Often, the female depicted on the front of the ship was representative of the ship's allegiance or origins; for example, a carving of a queen identified the vessel as loyal to the country of that particular ruler. Besides identification, the likeness of a particular woman might simply have symbolised respect for that person or perhaps carried her memory to sea if, for example, she was the captain's wife or daughter for instance.
One of the chief reasons why women were depicted on ship figureheads was that their presence was said to bring the vessel luck. Many sailors throughout history have felt that women themselves should not be on ships, since they were said to bring with them misfortune. However, the opposite was believed about wooden carvings of women. In particular, such carvings were said to calm angry seas and would thus prevent the vessel from heading into disaster. If a figurehead was damaged or ruined it was an ill sign, and superstitious sailors sometimes took a piece of the wood of the female figure as a symbol against this bad luck.
Women often were not permitted to travel on board a ship in the days of figureheads, but the vessel itself was still referred to as a she. Thus, by placing a female image at the head of the ship, the woman represented the ship itself and became symbolic of the one woman allowed on the vessel.
- Thinkstock/Comstock/Getty Images