By Dr. Meredith J.C. Warren
When Good Omens premiered on Amazon Prime at the end of May, the religion and Bible academic twittersphere was delighted. I got a couple of messages from friends and colleagues urging me to watch the first episode — not that I needed much prompting. The early scene depicting the Fall was one that caught many scholars attention. As a scholar whose primary research interests are about food and eating, I was curious to see how they handled the fruit; I’ve raised the possibility in my book that the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil represents a special type of eating. But then another scene popped up on my screen, one which isn’t in the novel, which I’d read years before.
This scene takes place in a sushi restaurant, and it occurs about thirteen minutes in. I can’t link to here it because it’s not on YouTube, but you can watch the show on Amazon Prime. To set the scene, the angel Aziraphale (Michael Sheen) is sitting at a counter. A sushi chef is preparing food just behind the camera, and hands Aziraphale a selection of his favourite sushi rolls. They converse in Japanese. Just as Aziraphale is admiring what he is about to eat, a figure appears beside him, the archangel Gabriel (Jon Hamm).
Gabriel: Mind if I join you?
Aziraphale: Gabriel? What an unexpected pleasure. It’s been…
G: Quite a while, yes.
G [with disgust]: Why do you consume… that? You’re an angel.
A [defensively]: It’s sushi. It’s nice! You dip it in soy sauce! It’s what humans do. And if I am going to be living here among them, ahem, well, keeping up appearances. Tea?
G [with disgust]: I do not sully the temple of my celestial body with gross matter.
A: Obviously not. Nice suit.
G: Yes, I like the clothes. Pity they won’t be around much longer.
It is a conversation that takes less than a minute, but reveals something fundamental about expectations around the differences between human beings and divine creatures, and how food plays a role in that distinction.
First, some observations: Aziraphale is clearly a regular at this sushi restaurant. He is familiar with the chef, and the chef remembers what his favourite selection of maki is. This is not Aziraphale’s first time eating, or even eating sushi. When Gabriel arrives, he is confused as to why Aziraphale is eating sushi because, he points out, Aziraphale is an angel. Here it is unlikely that Gabriel is uncomfortable with the type of food Aziraphale is eating, but rather he is perplexed that he is eating at all, given the rest of the conversation. Aziraphale responds, attempting to justify his choice to eat. First he tries to appeal to Gabriel’s aesthetic preferences, pointing out that the sushi is nice. Then he changes tactics and blames it on trying to better fit in among humans on earth. This bit of conversation indicates the core element under debate between Aziraphale and Gabriel: human beings eat food; angels do not eat human food.
Gabriel is almost disgusted with Aziraphale’s meal and with the idea that he might consume it. He uses two words that indicate his revulsion: he says that consuming gross matter would sully his celestial body (I will avoid for the present the question of what exactly Gabriel means by ‘celestial body’). The use of these two words together in this short sentence suggests that contamination is a by-product of ingesting human food — that there is something about the angelic form that would be polluted by it. Gabriel even uses the language of sacred space: his body is a temple and its boundaries are at risk of being transgressed by a profane substance. Sully implies a dirtiness, akin to pollution, something that damages the purity of anything it comes in contact with, while gross simultaneously conjures up vernacular associations of disgust as well as the more formal meaning of something vulgar or ordinary. It also connotes something very obvious or unacceptable, for instance a ‘gross miscarriage of justice’.
There is one more point to note in this conversation, which is highlighted by Aziraphale complementing Gabriel on his suit, and that is that there is something special about consuming food that sets it apart from interacting in other ways with the material or human world. Wearing human clothes, in this case a suit, is not the same as eating sushi.
This scene, as I’ve said, is not included in the book Good Omens, and was created for the TV show. What purpose does this scene serve, other than entertainment? Neil Gaiman has said in an interview that he wrote the scene because he and late co-author Terry Pratchett always imagined themselves in the background of the sushi restaurant, because they would have enjoyed eating sushi all day while it was filmed. I’m sure this is the motivation for its creation, but as scholars we also analyse its effect on the narrative as a whole. I suggest that it functions to align Aziraphale more closely with the human world, and to distance him from his angelic colleagues. It does so because of how food brings about transformation.
In my book, Food and Transformation in Ancient Mediterranean Literature, I define a new genre called hierophagy (a portmanteau of two Greek words meaning ‘sacred’ and ‘eat’), whereby characters in literature are transformed by eating something from another realm. Hierophagy results in three specific types of transformations: (A) the binding of the eater to the place of origin of the food; (B) the transformation of the eater either in terms of behaviour or physical appearance; and/or (C) the transmission of new knowledge.
I don’t think that Aziraphale is transformed by this meal — this meal is not hierophagic. As the chef indicates, this is not Aziraphale’s first taste of sushi; he eats it regularly. However, the underlying ‘rule’ which allows hierophagy to work at all in the cultural imagination is at play in this scene: beings from the divine realm consume different things than beings from the mortal realm. Angels and gods consume heavenly food like nectar, while human beings consume mortal, perishable food. Behaviour like fasting, for example, creates space for the divine realm to punctuate the human realm in part because of this kind of distinction; on the flip-side, angels visiting mortals can get pretty anxious about whether they might have to eat mortal food, such as in Testament of Abraham 4, a text that gives us some insight into what is at stake in the conversation between Aziraphale and Gabriel.
In Testament of Abraham, a first century Jewish text, the angel Michael visits Abraham to give him the news of his impending death. While there, Abraham observes culturally expected hospitality rites and presents the angel with a table of food for the two to share. Michael returns to heaven to ask God for advice, since, as an angel, he cannot take part of human food. Michael argues, “Lord, all the heavenly spirits are incorporeal, and they neither drink nor eat, and he has set a table with an abundance of good things that are earthly and corruptible” (Test. Abr. 4). Michael is incapable or unwilling to eat the same food as Abraham—it is for humans and is corruptible, just as Abraham is susceptible to the death Michael is about to pronounce upon him. The issue is resolved by God, who sends with Michael a “devouring spirit,” invisible to Abraham, which will consume all the food that Michael brings to his mouth while making it appear that Michael himself is sharing in Abraham’s table. This division between heavenly and mortal creatures seems to be articulated in what each category of being consumes.
Using Testament of Abraham as a lens through which to view this scene in Good Omens, we can see that both Michael and Gabriel are angels who are aware of and concerned about the fact that mortal food somehow damages their angelic integrity. Earthly food sullies and corrupts. It does so because ingesting food brings about changes to the eater in a way that wearing clothing on the outside of the body does not. Gabriel is not concerned about enjoying human clothing, but he is concerned that Aziraphale ingests sushi. The food links Aziraphale to the mortal world.
Indeed, this is indicative of how Aziraphale is characterised in Good Omens: he is too attached to the world and tries to prevent its end by teaming up with his friend, the demon Crowley. This scene functions to alert the viewer of his attachment to the human realm, and to distance him from the angelic realm, and it does so using food. The reason this scene works the way it does is because it rests on the expectations we still have about how ingesting food changes a person. The body is penetrated by the food such that it becomes a part of us (Maggie Kilgour, From Cannibalism to Communion: An Anatomy of Metaphors of Incorporation, 25 ). This is why the sushi scene is able to communicate Aziraphale’s connection to the human realm: eating transforms what was external or alien into what is internal and intimate. The fact that he regularly orders sushi and enjoys it signals his intimate connection with the human realm. He isn’t just blending in.
In my book I trace the ramifications of eating other-worldly food in a variety of ancient texts, and point towards some films and novels (Alice in Wonderland, The Matrix, Spirited Away, e.g.) produced much more recently than two thousand years ago that make use of the same hierophagic genre. Whether or not Neil Gaiman was aware of these ancient texts or their understanding of how food transforms, Good Omens continues a surprisingly long tradition.
Dr. Meredith J.C. Warren is a Lecturer in Biblical and Religious Studies and Director of the Sheffield Institute for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies; she also edits the SIIBS book series published with Sheffield Phoenix Press, and is the co-editor in chief of the Journal for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies. Her primary research interests include the use of food and the sense of taste in biblical texts, especially in the New Testament and non-canonical literature. Her most recent monograph, Food and Transformation in Ancient Mediterranean Literature, identifies and defines a new genre in ancient texts that she terms hierophagy, a specific type of transformational eating where other-worldly things are consumed and which cause the eater to become associated with the heavenly realm. Her first book, My Flesh Is Meat Indeed: A Nonsacramental Reading of John 6:51–58, examined Jesus’ commandment to consume his flesh and blood in the context of fictional accounts of human sacrifice. Her website can be found here.
Nicklas, Tobias. “Food of Angels (Wis 16:20).” Pages 83–100 in Studies in the Book of Wisdom. Edited by G. G. Xeravits and J. Zsengellér. Supplements to the Journal for the Study of Judaism 142. Leiden: Brill, 2010. https://brill.com/abstract/book/edcoll/9789004188037/Bej.9789004186125.i-234_006.xml?crawler=trueSee also, David Goodman, “Do Angels Eat?” Journal of Jewish Studies 37 (1986): 160–175. https://www-jjs-online-net.sheffield.idm.oclc.org/archives/article/1278
Interestingly, in Episode 3, it is revealed that the demon Crowley has never eaten an oyster; Aziraphale offers to ‘tempt’ him into trying one, without success. In all the scenes where the two are in restaurants, while Aziraphale enjoys a range of foods, Crowley only ever appears to ingest coffee or alcohol, perhaps signifying that he is not as embedded in the human realm as the angel is.