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Early​ this year I had my first and only encounter with Santería. It was at the beach. I had long been an enthusiast for cold water swimming. I liked it even when I lived in Hastings, but it’s slightly easier now that I’m in southern Spain, where I snorkel regularly at my local beach. From mid-May to mid-October the temperatures are fine. For the rest of the year I only do the odd cold plunge into the sea and swim for a few minutes at most. This year I decided to try to snorkel all year round and I keep going for anything from five to twenty minutes, depending on the temperature of the water. The slight drop in core body temperature this causes seems to benefit my health in a variety of ways. And I sometimes have the beach to myself.

We usually take a thermos and have a snack on the beach while I dry off. A ringed gull turned up for a few weeks and we fed him scraps and called him Gav, short for gaviota. Cormorants are also regular visitors, and so is the occasional egret. A few months ago, the beach was haunted by the marine equivalent of twitchers, floating face down in full diving gear in about a foot of water. They were trying to photograph a small rare fish that occasionally pokes its nose out of a crack in a rock. We named this ‘the rock of the sacred blenny’. Apart from looking at the seabirds and fish and feeding them bread I have found that the beach is a good place to acquire things. I have had replacement snorkelling masks and tubes that others lost, a diving knife and an impressive variety of swimming trunks and shorts which have kept my husband and son in pants for many months. Women’s swimming gear only ends up in the sea when it has been torn to shreds, so I haven’t been quite so lucky. Other items – thermos tops, for example, and fishing equipment – blow into the sea. It all gets used. I’m a keen hillwalker and found a suitable stick recently, floating on the waves. It was stout bamboo which had grown its own handle in the shape of a warty penis. I have already taken it for a few walks. I started joking about my finds on Facebook.

At the start of February we saw an abandoned casserole lying at the water’s edge, in the middle of the bay close to the rock of the sacred blenny. It was by far my strangest find. February the first is considered the beginning of spring in some cultures; Candlemas, St Brigid’s Day and the Candelaria all fall on the second day of the month. There were also a few bits of fruit floating in the sea and I recovered the most usable: a pear, an apple and a mandarin. It’s not hugely uncommon for fruit to end up there, but it happens more often in summer when there are lots of people eating picnics on the beach or rocks alongside the water. The terracotta casserole was a great deal more uncommon. When my husband retrieved it from beside the shoreline, I took the lid off expecting to see the remains of something like magra, a winter dish of pork and peppers in a tomato sauce. It wouldn’t be an unusual thing to eat at the beach though you’d be more likely to find it in a Tupperware container.

Inside the casserole, I found a number of strange objects floating in water. There were four empty snail shells, a mirror, a piece of material cut from clothing, some cotton wool, a small doll’s head with a damaged eye, a lock of hair, and a photo of a pretty woman with a post-it note stuck to the back with a name on it. Photo and name were well hidden among the other objects in the water. When I got home I Googled the name and was surprised to find a substantial amount of information on the person concerned – an academic.

This wasn’t a casserole abandoned after lunch by a forgetful family. It was a padé, a form of brujería or Santería. There are a few Santería practitioners in the area, possibly of Cuban stock. They seem to advertise benign spells primarily, but what I saw on the beach didn’t look benign. The presence of the doll’s head seemed to label this event as malefic. Whoever arranged it had access to a lock of hair. My first thought was that this might be sinister.

I put a brief description of what happened on Facebook, leaving out the woman’s name and where she works. If it was a curse, what was the motive? Had she given someone a bad grade? Was one of her colleagues after her job? After my post on Facebook I received various bits of advice. Some were knowledgeable, some less so. I thought long and hard about the woman in the photograph and whether or not to contact her. The story was bound to spook her and that, in itself, might be a kind of curse. On the other hand, if someone close to her, in a position to gather a lock of her hair, wished her damage, then maybe she needed the warning and might be able to identify the person via the writing and the photo. After a few days of indecision, I emailed her at her university. The email I sent was brief. I mentioned finding a photo and offered to send more details, and asked if the email was secure. I received an out of office reply saying that she was ‘on medical leave’. At the time this too seemed sinister, though I was to hear from her later.

I coined a long series of alliterative phrases for what I had found and put them on Facebook: black magic bain marie, cursed casserole, goetian gallipot, marmite of malediction, sorcerer’s stockpot, taboo tagine, voodoo vessel etc. There were some interesting replies from friends, including a writer’s experience of being hexed in Italy. She believed that harmful things had been done alongside the spells. It was this possibility that made me keen to get in touch with the woman in the photo. At this stage, I believed she had an enemy and that some ill might be intended and could, perhaps be averted by my getting in touch.

In my teens and early twenties, I read pretty much all the occult writing that was available. I was a member of the London Library for part of this time and ordered what I couldn’t find there via inter-library loans – Reginald Scot’s Discoverie of Witchcraft was one such tome. Occasionally, local librarians gave me a friendly but naive warning for my own good. They were never that uncivilised in the London Library. They probably considered it par for the course if you used their grimoires to invoke demons, and they had no problem with that, as long as you brought the books back on time and in good condition. Quite a few anecdotes from this literature fuelled my early writing. I particularly enjoyed it when I found magical stories embedded in medieval chronicles and given the same validity as the history of kings and wars. While all this reading has made me relatively well informed on Western magic it didn’t give me much knowledge of practices outside those traditions. Occult histories rarely give much detail on African witchcraft, for instance, or cargo cults.

While I don’t think of myself as religious I am a bit like the Greeks mentioned in Acts, who had an altar to the Unknown God. Everybody’s gods are OK by me. My Muslim neighbour has been known to sacrifice a sheep at Eid on his terrace; most of the others in the road were brought up as Catholics. I am also visited by a persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Spanish and English, all of whom seem to think I am ripe for conversion. I tried to get a blood donor’s sticker to keep them away only to find that Spain doesn’t want my blood as I was in the UK at the same time as mad cow disease.

While I wouldn’t be too spooked if someone put a curse on me, I entertain the possibility that there might be some value in superstition as a form of hedging one’s bets. Pray but keep your powder dry. Luck does seem to exist outside the variety people make for themselves. When I was twenty, I bought a necklace with a hand of Fatima made of cassia wood. I still have it, though the perfume of the wood has faded and it now smells rather mouldy due to the state of our house. A French teacher at my art school told me what it was and said he was glad I had it as protection. He was a well-educated believer. There are plenty around. A very small percentage of my annual income comes from selling minerals I have found, and home-made jewellery. I do this for ten days outside a flamenco festival in summer and at a weekend collectors’ fair in the autumn. A pyrite sells better to a Spanish audience if it is known as pirita de suerte (‘lucky pyrite’). I only charge a euro so I don’t feel too bad about saying they’re lucky to keep the merchandise moving. It’s the sort of thing that’s done everywhere in the world of mineral-selling in Spain, a world where I have made many friends across the years. The piritas de suerte have certainly proved lucky for me. I know the qualities that belong to some minerals – pyrites can strike sparks and would have been useful in primitive fire-making, quartz is used in watches, radios etc – but the proliferation of psychic attributes given to most other minerals probably partakes of bullshit and snake oil. But I did buy a little book on this subject so that customers at my mineral stall can look up the properties of the minerals they are buying. A few of them do this with great enthusiasm. I offer no guarantees and the bracelets cost the same – €4 – whether or not they have stones that are featured in the little book.

After the initial out of office reply, the woman in the photograph emailed me to say she was ill and would get a close friend to speak to me about what I had found. The close friend turned out to be a practitioner of the Yoruba religion, one of the ingredients of Cuban Santería. He told me he was an initiate of the Regla de Monte Palo and explained that the dish and its contents were an invocation to Yemaja, the sea goddess, to invoke her help with the lady in the photo’s health problems. I agreed to replace the casserole and photo in the sea. I didn’t mention the fruit floating in the water but many pages I Googled cite this as a possible sacrifice to the goddess and it is perfectly OK for passers-by to collar it and eat it. Nice to know our fruit salad wasn’t hexed.

My brief reading on Santería shows it to be a colourful mix of Catholicism and African traditions. The sea goddess is close to the virgin, Stella Maris. I live in a fishing district where an image of the virgin goes out yearly on a boat to bless the year’s fishing. A small plaster version of another local virgin was left in our house by its former owner, a fisherman. By the bins alongside another beach, I found an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, popular in Mexican culture. Cartagena has a number of other nationalities among its population who brought their own cultures and sometimes religious practices to the city. There aren’t many Cubans, though Cartagena traded salt with them. Most of the South Americans here come from Ecuador, and most of them seem to convert to Evangelical Christianity once in Spain. Santería is not up their street. But it may appeal, as in this case, to a Spaniard willing to try something different. Cartagena has the remains of many temples from other cultures. The Romans, two thousand years ago, built a substantial temple to Isis. They too were not immune to the attraction of trying something from another culture. It’s probably a good thing that my email to the university was discreet. Otherwise those who worship the god Science might have jumped on this woman for going to another religion when ordinary medical practice had failed her.

I now have a Santería priest as a Facebook friend. I shall watch his posts with interest. My promise to him to return the casserole to the sea was kept, but with some difficulty. I tried to put the casserole in deeper water but the lid kept coming off and the photo floating out. I could see then why such a tangle of contents had proved necessary to weigh it down. I placed the dish half in, half out of the water at the side of the bay in a more secluded place where it would be less likely to be found by scavengers such as myself. I hope she regains her health, by whatever means. I would rather like to hear from her when she does.

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