|The Kalmar Nyckel (Key of Kalmar), Dutch-built |
ship that carried Swedish settlers to America in1638.
Today, the word figurehead
is more often heard in a metaphorical context, referring to a person in a position of power who has no real authority. But back in the day of galleons and frigates sailing on the high seas in the 16th to 19th centuries, one would find beautifully carved wooden sculptures attached to the prows of ships. These sentinels were used to help identify the ships and help non-literate people know the ship's name, but there is also much lore involving ship's figureheads.
The destiny of a ship was once thought to be so closely bound up with that of her carved figurehead that one could not sink without the other. They were used as religious symbols to protect the ship, and to express
the sailors’ belief that the ship was a living thing. There was also the
belief that a ship needed to find its own way, and could only do this
if it had eyes. To sail in a ship without a figurehead was considered highly dangerous as the figurehead was thought to be the embodiment of the ship's soul. It was thought to ward off evil spirits as the ship bounded through the sea and protect the crew and
passengers from traveling maladies.
If someone painted the figurehead black it was considered bad luck. Figureheads as such died out with the military sailing ship, primarily due to their weight, except for smaller ships of the royal navy.
Types of figureheads: Lions were the favorite figurehead for most nations in the 17th century and later on British military ships. Some chose other designs such as St. George slaying the dragon. In the 18th century many designs were representations of the name of the ship, such as a guillotine and often classical or mythological figures such as mermaids, goddesses, and even literary characters.
In my novella, Carving a Future in Colonial Courtships
(Barbour/2012), I tell the story of a ship's figurehead carver who is working as a journeyman and on his way to become a master carver. He is commissioned to carve the heroine in the story. The research that I did in Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia and in Mystic Seaport, Connecticut was fascinating. I so enjoyed looking at the beautiful carvings and learning about the process. At Mystic Seaport I was able to interview a few interpreters at the ship carver's shop. I did further research with a famous figurehead carver, Martin Jeffery, from Australia.
|Ship carver's shop, Mystic Seaport, CT|
|Figureheads from Mystic Seaport|
Photos taken by Carla
When I saw the post title, I was hoping/expecting Carla. I so enjoyed your story in Colonial Courtships and this only makes me more determined to visit Mystic Seaport. I imagine sailors, being the superstitious lot they were, would never sign up for a ship without one, so they were as necessary as the masts!ReplyDelete
You are fueling my love for all things nautical about the 18th and 19th century!
Thanks so much, Deb! Mystic is a great trip, you'd have so much fun there! And you are right about the sailor's superstitions. They would never board a ship without a figurehead or if it was painted black!Delete
Carla, how very interesting! Thanks for this great info and photos.ReplyDelete
Elva Cobb Martin, President SC Chapter ACFW
Thank you, Elva! This was by far the most interesting trade I have researched!Delete
Fascinating post, Carla! I have done some research on early figurehead carving and am very interested in the subject. Thank you for this and the wonderful photos! I'll have to put Carving a Future on my TBR list.ReplyDelete
I had a feeling you might be interested in the subject. Our New England has some rich history of shipbuilding!Delete
Great post, Carla! I read it out loud to Clark. Love the pictures, too. Have always thought figureheads were so cool. Yes, Lisa's new release has a wonderful story line in it about figurehead carving and I loved that in your book, too, Carla!ReplyDelete
Cool! The exhibit at CW that has the wood carvings like signs and carosel horses and figureheads is so cool. The trade is all related. Although figureheads were done especially for the ships, wood carvers had similar skills. I am just amazed at the works of art!Delete
Fascinating! I had never heard of Mystic Seaport CT but I just put this in my New England vacation file folder. Thanks for the post!ReplyDelete
Mystic Seaport is wonderful! It is set up like a small 19th century New England village.Delete