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, Bethesda’s 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.