(ATLAS OBSCURA) — A faded painting, still showing hints of its once-vivid hues, fills the entire back wall of an otherwise grim underground cavern in Santa Maria Capua Vetere, Italy. Sculptures and frescoes of ancient gods and cryptic celestial symbols are scattered throughout the interior. A stagnant darkness lurks within the corridor, as the lack of windows forbids any stray sunlight to penetrate the ancient cave.
This subterranean temple is just one of more than 400 such structures that have been uncovered within the vast territory once overseen by the Roman Empire. It, like the others, is a relic from a mysterious ancient religion that continues to pose a challenge to most modern scholars.
Mithraism was an underground Roman religious group that worshipped a pagan deity called Mithras. All Mithraea featured a tauroctony, an image of the god Mithras slaying a sacred bull, as its centerpiece. Though the covert religion was once so widespread some historians considered it an early rival and “sister religion” to Christianity, little is actually known for certain about it.
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