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What do figureheads on ships represent?

05 August 2021

What do figureheads on ships represent? Why are they female? Why are they naked, or semi naked?

In our latest blog post we explore some of the superstitions around figureheads on ships.

“When Captain Collingwood learned that there was a woman aboard one of the ships in his squadron, he ordered her to be sent home at once. ‘I never knew a woman brought to sea in a ship that some mischief did not befall the vessel.’ He wrote to Admiral Purvis.”

Letter written from HMS Ocean, August 9, 1808. The Private Correspondence of Admiral Lord Collingwood, ed. Edward Hughes. Navy Records Society, London 1957 (Cordingly, 2001).

This is view that has been shared amongst sailors and fishermen for hundreds of years and can still be heard today. There are no facts behind this belief but it is curious that despite this superstition, female figure heads became very popular in the 18th Century.

Sailors’ superstitions are hard to trace. However, what is interesting is how there was an ancient belief, older than ancient Greece, that women have a power over the sea that men did not. Medical writers of the day thought women were wetter than men and their naked body could calm a storm. This belief must’ve have been widely thought of as it appears in the Roman, Piny the Elder’s encyclopaedic work Natural History published in A.D 77.

“For, in the first place, hailstorms, they say, whirlwinds, and lightening even, will be scared away by a woman uncovering her body while her monthly courses are upon her. The same, too, with all kinds of tempestuous weather; and out at sea, a storm may be lulled by a woman uncovering her body.”
(Cordingly, 2001)

This is reflected in beliefs surrounding ancient Goddesses. The Egyptian Goddess Isis was adopted by the Greeks to also became protector of ships at sea. The Great Goddess of the Cretans (Crete) was the goddess of fertility, nature, hunters and fishermen.

Therefore, if a women has special powers over the sea it makes sense for a figurehead to depict a semi naked, bare breasted women, to calm the storms.

However, it wasn’t until after the 1780’s that a voluptuous female figurehead became popular. Earlier figureheads traditionally featured birds, animals, mythical creatures or symbolic representations of gods and goddesses; Egyptians favouring symbols of the Gods, such as the lotus or falcon, Greeks the ram or boar and Vikings famously serpents or dragons.

HMS Gannet figurehead

So what changed in the 18th Century?

Figureheads began to be carved to symbolically represent the power of the state or its leader. The Elizabethan warship figureheads proudly featured unicorns, tigers, eagles, lions and St George and the Dragon.

The carving of figureheads became so elaborate and costly that in 1703 the Naval Board had to restrict all but the largest warships from having a lion. Warships had always featured naval heroes, kings and gods but it was in the 1780s that goddesses (such as Diana, Thetis and Minerva), mermaids, sirens, nymphs and female representations of attributes such as Victory, Truth, Justice, Fame and Fortune began to be featured.

A survey of figureheads from the 17th – 19th Century demonstrates how their were 4 female images favoured by the men:

  • A female Goddesses armed and helmeted representing Athena or Minerva. The popularity of this figure is clear in its adoption by Great Britain as a personification of maritime power and patriotic symbol. Athena became Britannia.
  • Sea nymphs and neriads were used to support the main figurehead
  • A Siren, a bird woman from Greek mythology sometimes depicted as a mermaid figure with wings and a double fish tail
  • A mermaid

This style of figureheads lasted well into the 20th Century.

Female figurehead with brown hair and green dress with a white collar
HMS Star figurehead, 1835 (on display in Steam, Steel and Submarines gallery)

Why is a Ship referred to as a ‘her’ or ‘she’?

It is commonplace today for a ship or a boat to be referred to as a “she” or a “her” but where did this come from? Their are a couple of earlier reference but by the 16th Century ships were being referred to as ‘she’ or her’ in documents. There are a number of arguments but what do you think?

  1. A ship or boat is deemed as beautiful and anatomically similar to a women with a head, ribs, belly, waist, bottom and knees.
  2. A ship is a mother to its sailors, offering protection to those onboard.
  3. They had female figure heads on the bow leading the way.

You can find out more around the superstitions of women at sea and see our voluptuous female figurehead in Hidden Heroines: the untold stories of the women of the Dockyard.

HMS Britomart figurehead (on display in Hidden Heroines exhibition)
References: Cordingly, D., 2001. Women Sailors and Sailors’ Women: An Untold Maritime History. (London, Random House Trade)

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