In praise of Skyrim’s old­est mystery

How a collection of insect jars led to years of conspiracy theories.

You find them all over the place: beneath long­hous­es near vol­canic springs, in bed­rooms on remote island estates, behind pil­lars in sub­ter­ranean tem­ples. I first stum­bled on one propped above a hearth in an old light­house, deep in the snowy north. There were more press­ing mat­ters at hand – the light­house keep­er had been mur­dered – but a few hours lat­er, over cheese and ale in a snug city tav­ern, I opened my inven­to­ry screen and sized up my dis­cov­ery. A large glass jar, its cork lid inscribed with pecu­liar sym­bols, and hov­er­ing inside it, a firefly.

There are five of those insect jars in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Bethes­das 2011 fan­ta­sy role-play­ing game, and for most of the game’s com­mer­cial lifes­pan, their pres­ence has been a mys­tery. The jars don’t play a part in any of Skyrim’s quests, nor do they have a func­tion with­in its labyrinthine char­ac­ter cus­tomi­sa­tion sys­tems. They can’t be wield­ed as equip­ment, enchant­ed, trans­formed into eldritch weapons at a smithy’s forge, used as alchem­i­cal ingre­di­ents, or even smashed to release the bugs they con­tain – just sold for sofa change, or kept around as kitsch decorations.

Nonethe­less, the jars are too rare, too spe­cif­ic to be mis­cel­la­neous junk, like the table­ware items you’ll acci­den­tal­ly scoop up while gath­er­ing food. Their odd­ness implies intent. The sym­bols on the lids – are they num­bers or let­ters? Are they to be read sep­a­rate­ly or togeth­er? And what to make of where the jars appear in Skyrim’s haunt­ed, con­tort­ed geog­ra­phy, with its hun­dreds of ruins and relics? Is there more to these orna­ments than meets the eye?

The Elder Scrolls com­mu­ni­ty has spent years try­ing to make sense of the jars, even as the game itself – per­haps Bethesda’s defin­ing hit – has grav­i­tat­ed from plat­form to plat­form, attract­ing a fat pile of tech­ni­cal enhance­ments and add-on con­tent. You can play it nowa­days on Nintendo’s Switch, in spruced-up 4K res­o­lu­tion on the lat­est gam­ing PCs, or using a VR head­set. If Skyrim has moved with the times, the mys­tery of the jars has proven time­less, catch­ing the imag­i­na­tions of green­er play­ers for all the exas­per­a­tion of the fandom’s old guard. In a game that too often falls over itself to explain each item’s place in its own lore, these objects inspire ver­ti­go. They are worlds with­in worlds, exist­ing out­side of his­to­ry: each insect imper­ish­able, as though trapped in amber, yet ani­mate, its wings flick­er­ing hypnotically.

The the­o­ries about their ori­gin and pur­pose – sketched out across many thou­sands of Red­dit replies, Bethes­da forum posts and Youtube videos – run an eccen­tric gamut. One play­er argues, cit­ing first­hand expe­ri­ence, that the jars sim­ply attract oth­er insects and should be kept in green­hous­es. Anoth­er expla­na­tion holds that the sym­bols refer to a sum­mon­ing spell involv­ing a horse or at least horse­flesh, a snowy lake­side near the city of Dawn­star, and a human heart. 

Schol­ar­ly play­ers have sought to trans­late the sym­bols into one or oth­er Elder Scrolls lan­guage (as with Lord of the Rings, the series is an arm­chair philologist’s par­adise, boast­ing sev­er­al made-up vocab­u­lar­ies of vary­ing antiq­ui­ty). One such trans­la­tion goes some­thing like don’t look a gift horse in the mouth”. Oth­er game devel­op­ers have chimed in on the sub­ject: there’s a joke about the bug jars buried in vil­lage dia­logue in Blizzard’s ever­green MMO World of Warcraft.

Where most play­ers have con­tent­ed them­selves with search­ing online codex entries and Skyrim’s dozens of in-game books, a select few have dug below the sur­face, using mod tools to probe the game’s code for answers. I’ve read some heat­ed dis­cus­sions of the fact that four of the jars are num­bered in order with­in the code, while the bee jar is not. The Elder Scrolls uni­verse is more recep­tive to such illu­sion-break­ing foren­sic work than most, because its sup­port­ing mythol­o­gy accounts for the fact that each game is a fic­tion. The third game, Mor­rowind, fea­tures a liv­ing god, Vivec – the autho­r­i­al per­sona of ex-Bethes­da design­er Michael Kirk­bride – whose dia­logue and writ­ings often allude to the sim­u­la­tion enclos­ing him. Of par­tic­u­lar rel­e­vance here may be his sec­ond ser­mon, in which Vivec mar­vels at the abil­i­ty to infer sig­nif­i­cance in some­thing devoid of detail”.

Through­out all this, Bethes­da itself has main­tained a teas­ing silence, acknowl­edg­ing the spec­u­la­tion at inter­vals only to leave respon­dents hang­ing. I myself spoke to the company’s long-serv­ing vice-pres­i­dent of com­mu­ni­ca­tions Pete Hines about the jars in a pod­cast, way back in 2012: he told me that he had asked the design­ers about them and received an expla­na­tion, which he refused to share. 

Videogame com­pa­nies have, of course, long been in the habit of tap­ping the dynam­ics of online con­spir­a­cy hunts for mar­ket­ing pur­pos­es. Cul­ti­vat­ing such intrigue is, in fact, vital for many recent online ser­vice games, which need to sus­tain your inter­est in the face of a heavy ele­ment of rep­e­ti­tion. Take Fort­nite, in which play­ers con­test dom­i­nance of one anoth­er and the same map, again and again. Last year, fans of Epic’s globe-strad­dling bat­tle royale shoot­er noticed that a comet had appeared in the sky. Day after day, the comet grew larg­er till at last, it smashed into the world, destroy­ing build­ings while expos­ing a cave sys­tem and crys­tals with anti-grav­i­ty properties. 

Thus, the arche­typ­al har­bin­ger of apoc­a­lypse (a word gen­er­al­ly tak­en to mean destruc­tion, but derives from the Greek for reveal”) became a vehi­cle for ser­vice alter­ations a less cal­cu­lat­ing devel­op­er might have offered up as soft­ware patch notes. Epic didn’t announce or dis­cuss the comet’s pres­ence: it was sim­ply left for play­ers to scry out and obsess over. Sim­i­lar­ly, Skyrim’s bug jars have played their part in keep­ing the flame alive as the game has aged – and such fes­ter­ing enig­mas may be even more essen­tial to The Elder Scrolls 6. Where Skyrim’s sheer longevi­ty was unex­pect­ed, Bethesda’s ven­er­at­ed direc­tor Todd Howard has said that he intends the next game to last a decade at least”.

Back in 2011, some play­ers sug­gest­ed that the bug jars were teasers about the future of the Elder Scrolls series – hints about down­load­able con­tent packs, if not The Elder Scrolls 6. But the great­est the­o­ry of all, I think, is the one which sug­gests that Elder Scrolls has no future at all. By draw­ing lines between bug jar loca­tions on the game’s map screen, the most enter­pris­ing Skyrim sleuths dis­cov­ered an enor­mous, con­ti­nent-sized pen­ta­gram – the basis, they argued, for a gigan­tic trans­mu­ta­tion rite.

The archi­tects of this rite were said to be the Thal­mor, lead­ers of a bor­der­line geno­ci­dal race of elves. To crude­ly para­phrase a lot of back­ground nar­ra­tive, the Thal­mor view mor­tals, their gods and their soci­eties as a bar­ri­er to inte­gra­tion with the spir­it realm and an unsight­ly con­straint upon the flow of space and time. In labour­ing behind the scenes to erase that bar­ri­er over the course of sev­er­al games, the Thal­mor hope to return exis­tence to its right­ful state. Was the pen­ta­gram the final mas­ter­stroke in a con­spir­a­cy against the con­tin­u­ance of The Elder Scrolls itself, decades in the brewing?

Sad­ly, the real rea­son for the pres­ence of the jars isn’t quite that breath-tak­ing. As final­ly giv­en away by lev­el design­er Ryan Jenk­ins on Twit­ter, they are pieces of unfin­ished con­tent, mate­ri­als from a quest that nev­er made it through pro­duc­tion. The com­plex­i­ties and uncer­tain­ties of devel­op­ment mean that most games are lit­tered with such mate­r­i­al, much of it tire­less­ly record­ed for pos­ter­i­ty by Cut­ting Room Floor. The bug jars aside, Skyrim’s sub­stra­ta of devel­op­ment fos­sils includes unused fight­ing pits, a frost cave and audio files for the death cries of chil­dren (in the final game chil­dren are unkil­l­able, pre­sum­ably for the sake of age rat­ing cer­ti­fi­ca­tions or to avoid a press controversy).

So con­cludes one of gaming’s best-loved rid­dles, and on read­ing Jenk­ins’ tweet (he declined to be inter­viewed for this piece), I couldn’t help but resent him for spoil­ing the fun. But is the sor­cery of the jars ruined for such a rev­e­la­tion, or ampli­fied? The philoso­pher Wal­ter Ben­jamin writes that aban­doned or bro­ken objects, those things that no longer have social or eco­nom­ic val­ue, are a means of break­ing the spell of a pre­vail­ing cul­ture. In res­cu­ing them, play­ing with them like chil­dren, we free our­selves of such hege­mon­ic sys­tems and cre­ate space for some­thing new.

Skyrim’s insect jars have allowed its play­ers to break their world’s spell – to wrest the uni­verse they’re giv­en from the course laid down by its cre­ator, up to the point of pos­ing its destruc­tion, even as Bethes­da sets out to fash­ion an Elder Scrolls game that will endure indef­i­nite­ly. As such, they remain pow­er­ful arte­facts in a realm sod­den with occult con­trap­tions and for­bid­den texts that, via char­ac­ters like Vivec, keeps half an eye on the appa­ra­tus of its own con­struc­tion. They mean noth­ing, and thus, they can be made to mean everything.

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