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  • Writer's pictureMGMUS

Figureheads: Stalwart Faces of the Galley

In antiquity, Greek and Phoenician shipbuilders would attach sculpted eyes to their galleys. They believed that these depictions, the first figureheads in what would become a centuries-long tradition, would protect them while they were at sea. The Romans extended this tradition, choosing instead to depict their deities and turning figureheads into a religious practice. From one civilization to the next, the thinking behind figureheads would change, but it was only recently that they seemed to fall out of use altogether.

The Vikings carried on the practice, opting to feature sculptures of ghouls and trolls with exaggerated eyes and teeth to adorn their ships, chosen for their perceived ability to ward off troublesome spirits. This continued throughout their dominance of Europe. Over the half-millennium that followed the Norman conquest and the Battle of Hastings in 1066, events that are used to mark the end of the Viking Age, figureheads persisted, but the style changed once again. Menacing eyes that had given way to menacing gods that had given way to menacing monsters gave way to creatures less menacing.

During the early modern and modern eras, from the 16th

century to the 20th century, the dolphins lost out. Shipbuilders began to favor mermaids and half-clothed maidens, and at the same time, figureheads became larger than ever before. 17th-century figureheads sometimes weighed upwards of 6,000 pounds. Although this weight negatively affected sailing ships’ balance, form often won out over function since rich shipowners and rich navy officials viewed large figureheads as signs of their prodigious wealth.

Figureheads were not merely for posturing, though. Throughout each of these eras, there was evidence as well that figureheads served as a form of language, signifying ships to their crews, the majority of whom were illiterate. Instead of reading a ship’s name on its hull, the thinking went, the crews could point to the figurehead, telling which was which without ever learning how to read and write.

As navies worldwide abandoned their sailing ships in favor of steam-powered battleships, figureheads fell out of fashion. One theory is that there was no longer an obvious spot on modern battleships for anything so ostentatious. Yet, thinking of figureheads as emblems or as a form of language, we can point to ships’ badges or crests as their latest incarnation.

After World War II, the US Navy made a point of encouraging creativity among their ships’ commanding officers, whom it tasked with designing unique crests before they took charge of new ships. These crests today frequently depict bald eagles, the national bird of the United States of America. These are less conspicuous than the multi-ton maidens of the 1600s or the bug-eyed goblins of the 900s, but in them there is still a nod toward the same artistic tradition passed down from age to age.


Top banner image: "Recouvrance proue face", author Hervé Cozanet, used under theCreative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License,

Trireme mosaic, author wikipedia user Mathiasrex used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License , "Oseberg figurehead" courtesy of the Museum of Cultural History, University of Oslo, Norway, used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Netherlands License ,

"Figure head - Europa ( tall ship - 1911) - 10 Aug , 2012" , author Jose Luis Cernadas Iglesias , used courtesy of the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

"Eagle Figurehead of the USS Lancaster", author wikipedia user Mytwocents, used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License


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