To the ancients a ship has its own personality, and is dedicated to a deity, of which often leads the name, and the deity is "present" on board to protect the sailors.
Often, this presence is symbolically represented by an apotropaic eye (intended to cancel and remove evil influences), painted on the sides of the bow in order to emphasize the protection already secured by the figurehead.
The bow is in fact the key point of the ship, considered almost as a living thing, as it carves its way through the treacherous and adverse waters. That's why a figure, usually female, is put on the bow, often paired by a similar figure on the stern.
The origin of figureheads possibly dates to the battle of Salamis (480 BC), when the Athenian Lycomedes offered to Apollo the insignia of the first ship captured to the Persians.
Figureheads preserve their awesomeness even nowadays, they are carefully kept in public and private collections, are sought in the antiquities market, and have been immortalized in literature and poetry.