In November of 1989 I received a letter from Prague that was sent to me by a friend, Renata. As I opened the envelope I was surprised to find that in addition to a letter, Renata had included a bell, about the size of a thimble, hung from a thin red ribbon. It was made out of a simple ceramic material and lacked any sort of ornamentation. As bells go, this was a modest object. However, what I held in my hands was more than a cheap bell, it was the materialization of a cultural backdraft that had swept through Prague, Czechoslovakia, and much of Eastern Europe over the course of that fall. Amongst firefighters, backdraft is known as an explosive phenomenon that derives its energy from a longer process of accumulation in which the power of partially un-burnt gases and other combustibles are suddenly released when presented with a new source of fuel. The fuel that ignites backdrafts and causes the pursuant deflagration is oxygen – something that might otherwise seem benign.

How to Cite

O'Dell, T., (2005) “Backdrafts”, Ethnologia Europaea 35(1), 113-118. doi:

Publisher Notes

  • This article was previously published by Museum Tusculanum Press.


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Tom O'Dell (Lund University)



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