In a story that brings the fantastical and the nautical together, a Cool Boat is bound to show up. But what makes for a Cool Boat? Well, having an imposing or gorgeous figurehead is a good start, and it doubles down if said figurehead is alive.
A sapient figurehead is a (usually) wooden version of the Living Statue and sits on the crossroads of a nautical Gargoyle and an analog Spaceship Girl. Like the latter, it's (almost) Always Female due to the age-old custom of referring to seafaring vessels as "she." Of course, there is a superstition that a woman on board invites misfortune, but figureheads of any form are understood to be protectors of their ship and that overrules their gender.
There are about three variations of sapient figureheads:
- The independent entity: This figurehead can exist separately from the boat, although it may still control it and consider the boat part of its body. This type of figurehead is usually a full figure, and prone to be the host of a seaman's deceased lover's spirit.
- The consciousness of the Sapient Ship: This figurehead functions as the head of the boat and as such is in control of it alongside the captain. Figureheads like these tend to be carved only as heads.
- The prisoner: Not all living figureheads are necessarily actually figureheads. Sometimes, a bad guy wants to show how vile they are and has a captive bound up to the bow to serve as figurehead.
This trope generally isn't in effect in cases of Taken for Granite, because the affected isn't alive during their time as figurehead. Heads on organic ships also tend to be a no, because an organic head attached to an organic body is just a head, not a figurehead.
Decorating the bow of a boat goes back a long way in human tradition, sometimes as just a means to make the boat prettier, sometimes to protect the crew from evil, and sometimes to infuse the boat with the qualities associated with whatever depicted. Figureheads as they are imagined today came about in the 17th Century in Europe, and while the superstitious element never disappeared, the subjects chosen to depict often helped convey the name of the boat in a time many were illiterate. The practice fell into decline in the 20th Century for practical reasons and because reading had become a common skill.
Although rarely shown in fiction, boats can have dual figureheads, such as the SS Great Britain, which features a unicorn on the left and a lion on the right to represent the United Kingdom. Detailed ornamental carvings may also be found on the stern, framing the fancy cabins meant for the captain and passengers. Riverboats, which are too small for figureheads, may have a statuette adorning the steering wheel.
- Back Arrow has a rare willing variant. In order for the Granedger to fly, Elsha, in her Briheight, must assume the position. It's also how she's controlling it.
- Prior to the events of Destiny's Hand, there was the romance between Sebastian Blaine, an aspiring pirate, and Katherine Marsh, a minor sorceress. To show his devotion, Blaine had a figurehead made in her likeness. But Katherine foresaw a terrible future that required her to leave Blaine to set up a counterfuture. She did, however, leave a part of her soul in the figurehead, which came to be known as Lady Kate of the Destiny's Hand and as the reason the ship was unsinkable. Both Blaine and their son Elias can talk with Lady Kate, who is all that's left of Katherine's mortal existence following her Death by Childbirth. Lady Kate becomes a regular figurehead once more upon Blaine's death, which is when his and Katherine's souls reunite.
- In One Piece, Big Mom's flagship has a singing figurehead, courtesy of her Soul-Soul Fruit.
- In Hawkman #13, "Quest of the Immortal Queen", Hawkman is forced to bring the ship Naglfar to a halt by Alvit, Queen of Alfheim. Unlike the mythological vessel, which stands out because its made from the keratin of the dead, this Naglfar is normal except for that it's alive. Its oars are like tentacles, the heraldic dragon on the main sail can detach, and the figurehead, another dragon, can look around and breathe fire. Unlike Alvit's other toys, which are products of science, Naglfar seems to operate on magic. Hawkman sinks the ship by crashing the sail's dragon into it.
- The walls surrounding the Labyrinth in Labyrinth: Coronation are composed of ships. The figureheads are lined up outwards, and they kindly but futilely warn Maria not to enter.
- In the My Little Pony comic "Sundance and the Saucy Sally", the ponies find Saucy Sally, the badly damaged figurehead of a ship that got wrecked in a storm, lying forlornly on the beach. Naturally, they bring her to Majesty. The queen uses her magic to restore the figurehead to her former glory, but Saucy Sally laments that without a ship to guide to safety she's not truly happy. Majesty offers her another job instead: as a lantern-holding sign that points the way down the treacherous cliff path to the beach. Saucy Sally is happy with this.
- Tom and Bommel of Tom Poes are taken captive by the ghost ship Gog in "Tom Poes en het Geheimzinnige Boegbeeld".note It is controlled by its demonic figurehead, which literally is just a head ever since the rest of his body was cut off and buried to reduce his power. Gog forces the duo to uncover the body parts, then detaches himself from the ship and goes on a rampage. In the end, with the aid of a sculptor, Gog is captured and taken apart again.
- Wonder Woman Vol 1: In #115, "The Graveyard of Monster Ships!", a freak current pushes ship wrecks from various eras to the surface. Around the same time, Angle Man finishes his Animox robot, which is capable of animating inanimate objects and imprinting instructions for one order at a time. Animox brings the figureheads to life, which for the most part are a menagerie of monsters, but there's also a figurehead of Wonder Woman herself from an Amazon ship wreck. Wonder Woman destroys the latter figurehead personally and reprograms Animox to shoot up like a rocket into space. The other figureheads follow and burn away when leaving the atmosphere.
- In X-Men lore, one of the reasons Spiral ended up so warped was because she spent several years lashed to a dimension-hopping ship as its living figurehead.
- The 1968 Stop Motion short "Strážce Majáku"note features a mermaid figurehead who, after being harrassed-vandalized off her ship by a passenger, wants him dead. Her plan is to make the ship run into a sharp sea stack and see him drown. Of course, said plan does require her to mentally destroy the titular lighthouse keeper so he won't warn the ship of the spire, but that's not a problem in the slightest.
- The Mountain and the Wolf: The Seafang's prow is not only still capable of granting flight and hyperdrive to the ship it's attached to, it can also animate to bite another ship, to hold it in place.
- Cabin Boy: The figurehead of the Filthy Whore is animate, rolling her eyes at one of Nathaniel's lame jokes, having a frightened expression when sailing into a storm, and growing a beard when they sail through Hell's Bucket.
- The Golden Voyage of Sinbad: The Evil Sorceror Koura brings the siren figurehead of Sinbad's ship to life so she will steal the map to Lemuria for him. This feat also became preparation for his animation of a temple statue of Kali.
- Jason and the Argonauts: The Argo's figurehead (which the shipwright, on a whim, put on the ship's stern) depicts Hera and the goddess herself speaks through it several times to give Jason guidance. When she does, the figurehead's eyelids move.
- Muppet Treasure Island: The Hispaniola has a dual living figurehead in the form of Statler and Waldorf.
- Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales: The Silent Mary was cursed alongside her crew when they were lost to the waters of the Devil's Triangle. The area turned the crew into the undead and gave the captain, Armando Salazar, full control over the Silent Mary. One of his powers is the ability to awaken the boat's figurehead, who can then detach herself and go after whoever the captain needs dead.
- "The Figurehead": Played with. The story features a beautiful male statue that was carved to represent a saint but painted to represent a soldier because the parson wouldn't be a buyer for it. It was then sold as a figurehead and on its maiden voyage caught the eye of none other than the daughter of Davy Jones. She fell in love with the gorgeous figurehead, but it wouldn't answer her courting, so she had her father sink the ship and took the figurehead to her grotto. And still it wouldn't answer her "for beneath his soldier paint, the wooden-headed lunatic still thinks that he's a saint".
- Figurehead Trilogy: The titular figurehead is Francine Adams. As a human in the 17th Century, she was engaged to Captain Silas Pike. When she died, Pike blamed the pirate Jackal and sought to destroy him and all his associates. In West Africa, he found the holy man Kum, who carved a figurehead in Francine's likeness and sealed her spirit inside. Like this, Francine adorned the Avenger until the ship sank. Then she was uncovered on a Virginia beach in 2015 and the Avenger reconstructed, reuniting her and Pike, now an aimless malevolent spirit, with dire consequences for all to cross their path.
- In the Liveship Traders trilogy, liveships are sapient ships made from wizardwood. Wizardwood logs are, in fact, dragon cocoons and contain the spirit of the dragon that was going to hatch from it. When they instead are made into ships, their spirits come to reside within. This isn't enough to make the ship come to life, however; for that, the deaths of three generations of one family on board are required. The self of the ship is therefore a mixture of the original dragon and the absorbed human memories. All but the first ever liveship have humanoid figureheads, through which they communicate. The first liveship makes do with telepathy.
- In Princesses on the Broken Sea, the protagonists' Tabletop RPG brings them to cross the sea aboard the Princess Ouragonea, which has a mermaid as living figurehead. She likes to play the lyre. Presumably, its sister ships the Typhonea and the Kyklonea, which are also living ships, have similar figureheads.
- The Magic Realism short story "Figurehead" by Carly Holmes is written from the perspective of a figurehead. She narrates about her life, from being carved into shape, to overcoming her seasickness, to all the sights she's witnessed, to her inevitable future as flotsam.
- Played with in The Dragon Hoard. The protagonists, on a quest that's a spoof of Jason and the Argonauts, believe that the figurehead of their ship was carved out of magical wood and is capable of giving them advice. It's actually a completely inert carving made from ordinary wood being used as a mouthpiece by the villain to give them bad advice and lead them into trouble.
- In the Gor novels, it's routine to use slave girls as living figureheads to "show off" when ships enter ports. Often, two slave girls will be tied up as dual figureheads.
- In Liliana Bodoc's The Saga of the Borderlands, The Death has the appearance of a fragile old woman with long gray hair, however when she must travel from The Ancient Lands to The Fertile Lands, she takes the form of a figurehead, without letting the ship's crew know who they are carrying as a passenger. A sailor, the product of a bet, must go and "pet" the ugly and wrinkled figurehead of his ship. He goes mad with fear, and then dies.
- In Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, in an attempt to get information on the French navy Norrell brings the mermaid figurehead of a captured French ship to life. She turns out to be extremely patriotic and is thrilled to have been given the ability to insult the English directly, using language appropriate to spending her whole existence among sailors.
- In the Roger Moore episode of The Muppet Show, some viking pigs perform "In the Navy" on a viking ship, and the ship's dragon figurehead sings along with them.
- The Island Princess of The Noddy Shop is an antique figurehead dressed in a Hawaiian costume. She is the shop's all-seeing advisor and sometimes alerts the toys to the pranks of the Goblins.
- In Worzel Gummidge, two walking, talking figureheads are among the simulacrum cast. They're both named after the ships they were part of: Saucy Nancy and Jolly Jack, with the former debuting in "Worzel and the Saucy Nancy" (adapted from the fourth book) and the latter being introduced in "The Golden Hind".
- While the Argo of Classical Mythology has no figurehead, the retelling of the tale of the Argonauts by Apollonius of Rhodes still fits the trope's spirit. According to him, a piece of wood from an oak of Dodona, a place known for its oracle trees, was fitted in the middle of the stem. It would on occasion speak to urge the Argonauts onwards.
- In Nautical Folklore of Northern Europe, there exists the klabautermann, a water spirit that protects the boat it travels with. It was said to either reside in a statue tied to the mast or within the figurehead.
- Dungeons & Dragons module D3 Vault of the Drow. The Fane of Lolth has two ships with Type II demon figureheads. If anyone sets foot on either ship while saying "Lolth", the figurehead will come to life and defend the ship if it's attacked. If someone comes aboard without saying "Lolth", the figurehead will immediately animate and attack the intruder.
- The Seafang is a longship possessed by daemons that once belonged to Baba Yar and now belongs to Wulfrik the Wanderer that can teleport (although Hyperspace Is a Scary Place is in full effect) and possibly fly. In order to control it, Wulfrik meets the required blood offering with his own by feeding it to the dragon-esque figurehead.
- The fan-made Warhammer supplement Pirates of Sartosa introduces Dark Maidens. The creation of a Dark Maiden starts with a woman grieving over a loved one lost at sea. If their grief is particularly strong, they'll attract evil spirits that mingle with their sense of self. Soon enough, they'll drown themselves in the dark waters and their souls will drift even further until inevitably they'll come across one of the many figureheads decorating the ocean floor. The figureheads become new bodies for the tortured souls, thus bringing highly dangerous Dark Maidens into existence. One particular appearance note is that, unlike other figureheads that break loose from their ships completely, a Dark Maiden keeps parts of the hull attached in a wing-like fashion.
- Published under the fan-original Slarecian Vault banner of Scarred Lands is Spontaneous Golems. Spontaneous golems are golems naturally formed at a site of tragedy with the materials available. One such golem is the figurehead golem, which used to be the figurehead of the elvish ship named the Summer Maid. Like many of elvish origin, this figurehead was enchanted and had a low level of awareness. One day, the Summer Maid got hit mid-voyage by a titan corpse and was destroyed. The titan's blood mingled with the wood to create a rage-filled figurehead golem set on freeing its figurehead sisters.
- The Book of Unwritten Tales: The Critter Chronicles opens with Nate's theft of The Mary from the Red Pirate. Thus he meets Mary, the ship's living figurehead, who for skipped-over reasons is located in the captain's cabin instead of on the bow. She and the ship are one and she misses being half-emerged in seawater as she used to be before the Red Pirate converted The Mary into a Cool Airship. She's 81 years old and has all the nautical know-how that Nate lacks, which is one of several reasons she calls him "little man". All the same, she acknowledges he has a good heart and that she isn't bothered that much by having him as her captain.
- Cotton Boomerang: Magical Night Dreams: The third level takes the protagonist from the back of a stranded ship to the front. At the front is a figurehead resembling a skull-faced bust that wears a galea. It appears harmless until the protagonist passes it by and can't turn around to destroy it anymore. It's only then the figurehead attacks with a rapid Spread Shot.
- The Lady Vengeance in Divinity: Original Sin II is made from livewood, possessed by an elfin spirit. The ship and spirit within are enslaved by means of a magical scar on the figurehead that allows her thoughts to be controlled by means of a hymn in the old Lizard tongue. When the Lady Vengeance is met, she's under control of Dallis, but the player defeats Dallis and finds the instructions to the hymn. Upon awakening the figurehead, the player can choose to become her new master or set her free, though the latter option won't work out because of the scar. Freedom is eventually gained when the Lady Vengeance is destroyed.
- In Escape from Monkey Island, Guybrush's voodoo-enchanted ship, the Dainty Lady, holds the key to finding the Ultimate Insult. The first step is placing the voodoo earrings in the figurehead's ears, which bring her to life, much to her displeasure. The next steps are to give her a necklace, a pen on a chain, and a map of the Tri-Island Area. Unbefitting her name and appearance (although she indicates she wasn't pink before), the figurehead is a foul-mouthed piece of work.
- Faery: Legends of Avalon has a cast full of The Fair Folk in the broadest sense of the definition. Meaning this includes the ghost crew of the Flying Dutchman as per Wagner's opera. Senta's soul, rather than having gone to heaven, has become one with the ship's figurehead. She and the captain are still lovers, which gives him an edge when the crew turns mutinous because she can pull a mutiny on them in return.
- In The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, Link's primary mode of transport is the King of Red Lions. It is a tiny sailboat with a prow in the shape of a red lion, which cranes around to look at him and give advice about the next stage in his adventure.
- Popeye 2 for the Game Boy features a figurehead as its second boss fight. It detaches itself from the ship and flies around like a ghost.
- There's the ghost ship the Gooey Galleon in Moshi Monsters. The figurehead is a unicorn named Mavis and she controls various parts of the ship, although some of that doesn't matter anymore now that the crew are ghosts and can go right through the doors. Otherwise, Mavis enjoys her ghost ship status and likes to hum spooky songs. Her food of choice are pilchards, which she catches herself.
- In the Looney Tunes short "Pilgrim Porky", the Mayflower has a little cherub figurehead that gargles sea water and, for obvious reasons, has the strongest reaction of all when an iceberg looms up in the boat's path.
- In the Mighty Mouse short "The Wreck of the Hesperus", the Hesperus is manned by four people: the skipper, his daughter, the old sailor, and the figurehead. The figurehead mostly holds still, but when the cold waters splash up at her, she reaches back through a porthole to get herself a coat.
- The episode "Darkwing Doubloon" of Darkwing Duck is an Alternate Universe take on Darkwing's adventures in which the cast are pirates and seafarers. Negaduck takes Gosalyn captive and has her bound to the stem to taunt Darkwing Doubloon.
- In the episode "Ocean Commotion" of Dexter's Laboratory, DeeDee, mistaken for a mermaid, is kidnapped by pirates and made the figurehead of their ship. To her disgust, one pirate even spit-cleans her!
- In the episode "X-Calibre" of Wolverine and the X-Men (2009), Ricochet Rita is strung up as the figurehead of the Reavers' ship and forced to provide the ship with ammunition by means of the concussive energies she can project.
- Played with in Disenchantment. After Oona quits being queen of Dreamland and becomes a sea-faring pirate, she navigates by way of taking a huge hit of her personal "catnip", which reduces her to a howling mess that constantly needs to run around, and has her men tie her to the front of the ship in place of an actual figurehead.
- The villains' ship Misfortune's Keep from Ninjago has a legless skeleton tied to its front to serve as figurehead. He's been with the ship for ages, from well before it was turned into an airship, and knows all the crew's histories. He appears to prefer for the crew not to know he's alive.
- In the Disney short "The Saga Of Windwagon Smith", a cigar store Indian is repurposed as the ship's figurehead. At the completion ceremony, a flask of moonshine is broken over the figurehead's face, causing it to become drunk.