Owlman of Mawnan, Cornwall

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Many legends of cryptids don't have a clear origin, a story that can easily be traced back to the first sighting. For these creatures, the line between cryptid (an as-of-yet undocumented natural animal) and supernatural is sometimes blurry, as is true with cases such as The Qalupalik of Inuit Folklore or El Peuchen of Mapuche Mythology. In some ways, the controversy surrounding sightings of strange things can make them even more intriguing to explore because there is little in the way of proof for or against their existence. At the core of these legends or folklore is a story, often a tangled combination of truth and fiction, genuine experience and exaggeration.

One of these controversial cryptids comes to us from a civil parish called Mawnan in south Cornwall, England. With a single look at Mawnan, many people might imagine something spooky all on their own, and few would want to venture into the uninhabited areas after dark.

A lichen-covered tree in the forest around the village of Mawnan Smith in the Mawnan civil parish.
A lichen-covered tree in the forest around the village of Mawnan Smith in the Mawnan civil parish.

The legend of the Owlman began in 1976, and the idea of it has fascinated and terrified visitors and locals alike ever since.

Where is Mawnan, Cornwall?

Nothing like a few maps to orient ourselves.

Google map. The peninsula at the southwestern tip of England is Cornwall.
The peninsula at the southwestern tip of England is Cornwall.
Google Map. Mawnan is located close to the town of Falmouth in southern Cornwall.
Mawnan is located close to the town of Falmouth in southern Cornwall.
Google map. It's only about a 10-20 minute drive to get across Mawnan.
It's only about a 10-20 minute drive to get across Mawnan.

The Story of Owlman

17 April 1976

Two girls, June (aged 12) and Vicky (aged 9) Melling, were on holiday and camping with their family in Mawnan. They stopped for a picnic in the woods near St. Mawnan and St. Stephen's church. June and Vicky wandered off to play in the cemetery while their parents set up for the picnic.

An old stone church and graveyard.
St. Mawnan and St. Stephen's Church. Yep, nothing spooky there.

The children's parents suddenly heard their daughters scream from the direction of the church, looked over, and saw the girls sprinting toward the car. Hysterical, June and Vicky insisted they leave immediately. They all went back to the campsite away from the church and then explained what they had seen at the church. When the girls had wandered into the cemetery to play, they heard a strange sound from above. They looked up to find a giant bird-like human flying above the church's tower. You can see from the church photo above that it's quite a ways off the ground.

Evidently, a paranormal researcher named Tony Shiels was known in the area for "creating" supernatural events, and the girl's parents found out about Tony Shiels later that same day. The girl's father, Don Melling, tracked Tony Shiels down at a local fair and accused Tony of pulling a traumatic hoax on his daughters. Tony denied knowing anything about it and wanted to speak to the girls to find out more. Don refused to let his daughters anywhere near Tony Shiels, but he did give Tony a sketch of the creature that June and Vicky made.

Photo of a simple inked sketch from the page of a book. It shows a scary looking bird-like humanoid creature that appears to be wearing...pants?
If this sketch is anything close to what June and Vicky saw hovering above the church tower, then it's no wonder they were running away from it and screaming.

Tony Shiels reported on the Owlman encounter the girls had in a magazine called the Fortean Times—which is still around, by the way. The Fortean Times is a monthly magazine devoted to strange phenomena. You can subscribe to Fortean Times right here. (Not an affiliate link; I don't make anything on this if you do. If you get a copy, let me know what you think!)

Photo of the book cover for "The Owlman and Others by Jonathan Downes"
See a lot more in the book The Owlman and Others by Jonathan Downes.
Tony "Doc" Shiels

"...is Britain's best known surrealist magician/illusionist/prankster/hoaxer/trickster figure/artist. From his early days as part of the beatnik artist community in and around St Ives, Shiels developed his many skills into the 'Doc' persona: he and his family putting on downright weird magic/music/illusion shows at fairs, fetes, festivals, and on the streets of towns across the West Country and latterly Ireland."

—You can read more about Tony Shiels at Monstermind: The Magical Life and Art of Tony 'Doc' Shiels.

The sighting by the Melling sisters is the first known of the large bird-like creature of Mawnan, Cornwall. (Although some unverified sources claim that local legend goes back to at least the 1920s of a humanoid bird in the area.) In case you were wondering, they've never given an interview on the matter. After the report in the Fortean Times, other sightings were reported in the area, and most of them share a common theme of the Owlman simply watching humans.

Even with the dozen or so sightings of the Owlman that have been reported, there are still far fewer than other strange creatures like Bigfoot or Loch Ness Monster, which makes it even more challenging for investigators seeking evidence. Some believe that the Owlman is actually a barn owl or perhaps a Eurasian eagle-owl, but those theories don't really account for the human-like appearance claimed by those who have seen it.

The Owlman of Mawnan isn't the only humanoid bird-like creature, and there are legends of them going at least as far back as the sirens and harpies of Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome. Even earlier, the Ancient Assyrians depicted "winged genies." You can even look back as far as Ancient Mesopotamia, in the "Burney Relief" (also known as the "Queen of the Night" relief), to find a winged, taloned woman. The relief is on display in the British Museum in London and is thought to have been created sometime between 1800 and 1750 BCE.

a Mesopotamian terracotta plaque in high relief of the Isin-Larsa period or Old-Babylonian period, depicting a winged, nude, goddess-like figure with bird's talons, flanked by owls, and perched upon two lions
Thought to be a representation of either Ereshkigal or Ishtar. Yes, those are owls to the side.

Whatever the Owlman—and the other bird-like creatures people have spotted over the years, like Mothman—they aren't just from contemporary imagination, and legends (and fear of them) span the globe and cross cultures and time.

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