Figure Heads

One of my favorite exhibits is the East India Hall in the Peabody/Essex Museum.

That hall is huge, almost like a ballroom, well-lit and spacious. Mounted on the walls are artifacts (today we might cal them souvenirs) from the adventures these ships experienced while roaming the 7 seas.

As they explored new worlds and strange cultures they immortalized the people they met in life-sized carved statues that were mounted on the bows of the ships. A wide variety of these figureheads have been collected and are displayed in this room.

The figurehead embodied the spirit of a ship and was originally believed to placate the gods of the sea and ensure a safe voyage. Almost every prow had a carved figure looking down at the waves, and the variety was immense.

A large figurehead, being carved from massive wood and perched on the very foremost tip of the hull, adversely affected the sailing qualities of the ship.

In Germany, Belgium, and Holland, it was once believed that spirits/faeries called Kaboutermannekes (water fairies) dwelt in the figureheads.  The spirit guarded the ship from sickness, rocks, storms, and dangerous winds.

 If the ship sank, the Kaboutermannekes guided the sailors’ souls to the Land of the Dead. To sink without a Kaboutermanneke condemned the sailor’s soul to haunt the sea forever, so Dutch sailors believed. A similar belief was found in early Scandinavia/Vikings.

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