A coconut filled with a list of names and stopped up with foil and wax was found on Salisbury Beach by Seabrook resident Tom Small.

SALISBURY — When Tom Small found a mysterious coconut last month on Salisbury Beach, he hoped it held a treasure, but instead all he got was bad luck.

“My friend said to me before I even opened the coconut, ‘you better watch out, the voodoo will go from the coconut to you,’” Small, 59, said.

The coconut had been sealed shut with tinfoil and wax, making Small believe there was something of value inside. But when he opened it, he found only coconut milk and small pieces of paper with Hispanic names on them.

And then the health problems started. He found out he has diabetes and high blood pressure, among other challenges.

But the mystery of the coconut now appears to be solved. And a local priest and teacher of the Afro-Caribbean Santeria religion says he thinks Small’s ills could be more coincidence than hex.

However, Small isn’t taking any chances. He burned incense around the coconut, scratched crosses on the nut’s surface, placed a makeshift cross inside and threw it back into the sea — all of it based on advice he received from a person who called him after hearing about his discovery.

“I burned incense and wrote a note saying my God is more powerful than your God and tossed it into the sea and saw it go out into the mouth of the river,” Small said, noting he thinks his health problems have improved.

Steve Quintana of Boston, a santero, or Santeria priest, believes Small’s health problems and his discovery of the coconut are a coincidence.

The names plastered inside the hard-shelled tropical nut, all Spanish, were likely put there as part of a common Santeria ritual, Quintana said.

“It could be Santeria or Voodoo. Putting the coconut in the ocean is a way to chase away evil,” Quintana said.

Santeria, the often-misunderstood Afro-Caribbean religion that combines the Catholic belief in the saints with Voodoo, is practiced by millions of people worldwide. It’s common in many cities and towns that have large Caribbean Hispanic populations.

Santeros and worshippers use coconuts in their principal ceremonies to see into the future and determine if a deity likes a certain offering, Quintana said.

According to Santeria’s beliefs, the coconut is the favorite food of the deity, Orunla. But the coconut is also used by some to place a jinx on people who have caused harm. It’s then thrown in the sea.

Quintana doubts Small’s coconut was used for malicious purposes.

“It was probably used to chase away bad spirits. This is commonly practiced,” Quintana said. “The names inside could have been the spirits of those who have died and are chasing them, or the names could be people that are enemies.”

As part of the ceremony, the coconut is typically thrown into the sea to symbolize a stronger force than land, Quintana said.

In Lawrence, Lowell and Boston, there are several botanicas, a Spanish name for the religious stores where people can receive advice on Santeria practices or buy folk medicines and candles.

Quintana opened The House of Mother Nature botanica in Jamaica Plain several years ago. Though Quintana no longer owns the shop, he preaches there one day a week.

The idea that Santeria is a religion of hexes and spells is exactly what Quintana hopes he is working to eliminate by preaching to those who have no previous understanding of Santeria.

“Santeria is not a cult, it’s not a religion to be scared of,” Quintana said. “There are a lot of things about it people don’t understand.”

Quintana, who immigrated to the United States from Cuba in 1957, spent one year in New York before moving to Boston, where he has practiced ever since. He also gives lectures on the religion at universities and colleges in and around Boston, most recently at Boston University School of Medicine, where he spoke of Santeria’s importance in healing.

“I want to open the door so people understand,” Quintana said.

Though the religion is often kept quiet, Quintana estimates between 1 million and 2 million people practice Santeria nationwide, and the number is growing.

“When academics write about Santeria, the struggle is not knowing how much comes from original beliefs and how much is a syncretism (the fusion of different religious beliefs),” Northern Essex Community College world religions professor Meredith Gunning said. “The most controversial aspect to me, is that some say it is a syncretism while others may argue it actually is more about coercion and hiding of the traditional beliefs behind Catholic saints.”

Qunitana, who mainly practices out of his Dorchester home, is hopeful people will learn about the meaning and rituals of Santeria and not believe what they see on television or the common stereotypes.

“It is like any other religion. We hope people will understand and practice the proper way and not use the religion for harm. It’s very useful and helps a lot of people.”

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