Even if you've never read the 1990 novel by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, there's a little something for everyone in Good Omens. Both the novel, Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch, and the Amazon series follow the angel Aziraphale (played by Michael Sheen) and the demon Crowley, née Crawly (David Tennant), who decide they enjoy life too much on Earth to allow the Apocalypse to go down. The only problem is that they've lost the Antichrist, the son of Satan and the kid who's gonna bring it all down. How do you stop the Apocalypse when you can't find the thing that starts it?
So, with that little refresher, let’s dive into the A to Z of the Apocalypse, shall we?
Angels — You’re going to meet a few of them in Good Omens, but it helps to understand the angelic hierarchy. Aziraphale (Sheen) is a Principality, which is in the lowest order. He’s below Seraphim, Cherubim, Dominions, Virtues, and Powers. Principalities are angels that guide and protect, inspire living things in art and science, and carry out orders given to them by the upper sphere angels. Meaning Aziraphale has a boss, the archangel Gabriel (played by Jon Hamm).
In the Christian tradition, Gabriel is an archangel and the primary messenger of God, who is best known for the Annunciation, informing Mary that she would conceive and become the mother of Jesus, despite being a virgin. Also in the celestial hierarchy is the Metatron (played by Derek Jacobi), the Voice of God. Not the actual voice, more of a spokesperson. When you hear Frances McDormand’s narration, that’s the voice of God.
Bond, James Bond — Crowley (Tennant) drives a vintage black Bentley, the original car driven by 007. Crowley’s version, however, has its own idiosyncrasies. It doesn’t need gas. It remains scratch-free. It regularly takes corners on two wheels at 90 miles per hour. And despite dating back to 1926 (which would mean no room for a tape- or CD-deck), it has one, and any CD left it in it for over a fortnight (two weeks) turns into album by Queen.
Aleister Crowley — A famous British philosopher and occultist, not to be confused with our demon Crowley. The real-life Crowley dabbled in black magic and wrote the occasional novel, one of which might have inspired part of the sequence of Pepper’s original names. Moonchild follows a young woman who is caught between teams of white magicians and black magicians, and a plan to impregnate her with an ethereal being. Well, it’s either that or The NeverEnding Story.
Dirty Harry — Ask yourself — do you feel lucky? Not every deadly weapon is a gun, but it doesn’t hurt to channel Clint Eastwood and his .44 Magnum if you have to point something at something particularly nasty.
Excommunication — There is a ritual involving a bell, book, and candle associated with excommunication by anathema, although some have confused it with the ritual of exorcism. Popular culture has a way of doing that, especially with a confused character in our story.
Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse — When the first four of the seven seals are broken, four beings are summoned to ride out on white, red, black, and pale horses as harbingers of the Apocalypse, according to a prophecy in Revelation. (See below.) The first seal is Conquest, who rides a white horse. (Popular culture has since turned this one into Pestilence, and then Pollution.) The second seal is constant War, who rides a red horse. (“Power was given to him that sat thereon to take peace from the earth, and that they should kill one another: and there was given unto him a great sword.”)
The third seal is high food costs and Famine, who rides a black horse. (“He that sat on him had a pair of balances in his hand. And I heard a voice in the midst of the four beasts say, A measure of wheat for a day’s wages, and three measures of barley for a day’s wages; and see thou hurt not the oil and the wine.”) The fourth seal is disease and Death, who rides a pale horse. But why ride a horse when you can ride a motorcycle? Hell’s Angels, indeed.
Genesis — The date for the beginning of the world has been in dispute since the beginning of the world. But Archbishop James Ussher claimed it was in 4004 BC, on October 23. His Annales Veteris Testamenti lists it at noon, although you can forgive the show for taking a little creative license with the date and time.
The Biblical story of Adam and Eve plays out in the show for anyone who needs a quick refresher, but an extra bit that might help – the flaming sword was meant to be used to prevent humans from returning to the Garden of Eden. (Genesis 3:24) Remember that when it turns up.
Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy — Douglas Adams’ series as a whole could be considered a guiding light — Gaiman had just written a Douglas Adams companion guide, Don’t Panic, before embarking on Good Omens — but there’s also a shared concern for the size of the brains of dolphins and whales that is the most direct shout-out.
“It was a dark and stormy night...” — Everyone knows the line, no one knows the novel. (Paul Clifford, by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, although it did not coin the phrase. Washington Irving gets credit for that.)
Just William — A series of 39 children’s books by Richmal Crompton about an 11-year-old schoolboy named William with titles like William the Detective, William the Outlaw, and William the Explorer. Gaiman’s original title for Good Omens was William the Antichrist, as William was the foundation for his main child character and his little band of friends, the Outlaws (Ginger, Henry, Douglas, and the scruffy dog Jumble) the basis of the Them (Pepper, Wensleydale, Brian, and the scruffy dog Dog). Terry Pratchett once said that he learned irony from Crompton’s books, which he tore through.
Kraken — Release the Kraken! The legendary entity — described as being part octopus, part crab — is so huge, it is said that if it grabbed the largest warship, it could pull it down to the bottom of the ocean (at least according to Erik Pontopiddan’s Natural History of Norway, from 1752). From Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “The Kraken” (not a poem to be read aloud while intoxicated) to Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea to H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu (see below), it’s part of apocalyptic lore, said to rise from hidden depths when the sea boils.
Led Zeppelin — If anyone says “That went down like a lead balloon,” it’s a reference to how rock band Led Zeppelin got its name (after switching from the New Yardbirds). In May 1966, a member of the Who — either bassist John Entwistle or drummer Keith Moon – cracked a joke about a project they did with guitarist Jimmy Page and bassist/keyboardist John Paul Jones, that a band with those two wouldn’t have much of a future and would go down like a lead balloon. Page remembered this and used it later.
H.P. Lovecraft — Some of the hideous demons and dukes of Hell are named after entities and races of beings of the Cthulhu mythos, a favorite of Gaiman’s. Hastur, the Unspeakable One, is mentioned in The Whisperer in Darkness (and was originally inspired by Robert W. Chambers’ King in Yellow stories). Ligur seems to be named after the race of the Lloigor. Dagon, meanwhile, is named after one of the deities worshipped by the Deep Ones. Also keep an eye out for Necrotelecomnicom, a reference to Necronomicon. And as always, watch out for Cthulhu.
Megiddo — It’s an ancient site in Israel, also known by its Greek name: Armageddon.
The NeverEnding Story — Pepper’s mom originally named her daughter Pippin Galadriel Moonchild. Depending on your frame of reference, you may immediately place the first two names — Pippin and Galadriel — as characters from The Lord of the Rings. But Moonchild? That’s another name for the Childlike Empress in The NeverEnding Story. Clearly, Pepper’s mom is a fantasy fan... or a Crowley fan. (See above.)
The Omen — One of the original inspirations for the book, references to the film are throughout. Our little Antichrist was meant to be raised by someone in a position of power, an American ambassador. And so when an American ambassador’s wife gives birth at a strange British religious hospital, the Satanic nuns try to suggest a suitable name, such as Damien, for the newly born male baby.
Elvis Presley — Some like to believe (or joke) that Elvis never died, and so you’ll find Elvis sightings reported in certain kinds of publications such as the National World Weekly. Could Elvis have been pretending to be dead these past decades? Was he abducted by aliens because he was too good for this world? Is he actually hiding in plain sight? Could you perhaps find him flipping burgers and singing to himself, if you paid close attention? Nah…
Queen — “Beelzebub has a devil put aside for me,” Freddie Mercury sings in “Bohemian Rhapsody.” And so perhaps it is Beelzebub who has ordained that all CDs in Crowley’s Bentley turn into Queen’s greatest hits. Perhaps not entirely un-coincidentally, Queen is dropping a best-of this week.
Revelation — There are a lot of different interpretations to prophecies contained in the Book of Revelation, said to be written by St. John the Divine of Patmos. (“Arizaphale found him a nice chap, if a bit too fond of funny mushrooms.”) Roughly, it goes something like this — the throne of God appears, a scroll with seven seals is presented, the Lamb of God opens the seals and the Four Horsemen (see above) appear, the souls of martyrs cry out for vengeance, there’s a great earthquake, the stars fall to the earth, mountains and islands are moved out of place, an angel throws heavenly fire to the earth, and seven other angels sound their trumpets, causing even more devastation.
(Hail, fire, something like a burning mountain falling from the sky and landing in the ocean, killing a third of the sea creatures, a falling star poisoning a third of the rivers and springs, an eclipse, a star that opens up a bottomless pit and brings monstrous beings, plagues.)
The seventh trumpet brings the Third Woe and the Seven Bowls, and that’s when things start to get really bad. (The seas, oceans, rivers, and any other water on earth turn to blood, a heatwave scorches the planet with fire, demonic spirits work Satanic miracles, an earthquake causes the cities of the world to collapse, etc.) Heralding this, among other figures, will be the birth of a child.
Sodom and Gomorrah — Cities mentioned in the Bible, the Torah, and the Koran, said to be destroyed when divine judgment was passed upon the residents’ various sins. In Genesis, Abraham asks the Lord to spare the city if 50 righteous people can be found dwelling there, and then Abraham has to keep renegotiating the number down — 45, then 40, then 40, then 20, and finally 10. Two angels investigate, and stay with Abraham’s nephew Lot.
Lot’s neighbors got a bit rowdy, apparently asking to have sex with the angels. Lot offered his virgin daughters, but the neighbors wouldn’t take them instead and started to break down the door — so the angels intervened, blinded the neighbors, and determining that there were not even 10 righteous people in these cities, they decided to destroy them with fire and brimstone. They commanded Lot and his family to leave, and told them not to look back. When Lot’s wife did, she became a pillar of salt.
Dick Turpin — Newton Pulsifer names his wretched car after a 17th Century British highwayman, in the hopes that someday, someone will ask why and then he can crack a joke: “Because everywhere I go, I hold up traffic.”
Unfood — Pretty much anything edible with no nutritional value whatsoever. Remember Famine, one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse? He absolutely loves it when you choose to eat unfood, whether it be expensive froth and foam or more affordable artificial fare. You’re saving him a lot of effort.
The Velvet Undergound — Not bebop, even if Aziraphale thinks so.
Witches and Witchfinders — A key figure in setting forward some of the action in Good Omens, Agnes Nutter, is most likely named after Alice Nutter, a real woman who was hanged for witchcraft in 1612. Alice, however, maintained her innocence and made no prophecies. A real-life figure from the 16th Century who did, Mother Shipton gets a shout-out. Mother Shipton, aka Ursula Southeil, made regional predictions that she published in 1684, and her narrow focus seems to be an inspiration for Agnes’ area of interest. (Ursula Shipton makes a cameo in Good Omens — or rather, her book blurb does, recommending Nutter’s printed prophecies as, “Reminiscent of Nostradamus at his best.”)
X — X marks the spot if you’re checking the ley lines, or invisible lines of force linking places of power. In Tadfield, they’re bending and starting to form a spiral.
W.B. Yeats — Anyone familiar with Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming” will find it applicable here. Particularly the slouching.
Zzzzz — The sound of Beelzeebub, Lord of the Flies. Not to be confused with Dagon, Lord of the Files. Hell is for bureaucrats.