The ornament on the front of a pirate ship is referred to as a figurehead. These decorations came about during the early days of seafaring, around 800 A.D., but gained popularity during the 16th century.
Early use of the figurehead was varied among the early seafaring civilizations. Vikings used their figureheads to intimidate their opponents and ward off evil spirits, while the ancient Phoenicians used horses to represent speed. Eventually, figureheads came to represent a way for a non-literate person to identify the ship and to show off the wealth and prosperity of the ship's owner. Their popularity continued to grow until the invention of the steam ship, which no longer included a bowsprit, which is where figureheads were traditionally mounted.