Samothrace is a mountainous island in the northeastern Aegean Sea. The island’s original inhabitants may have come from Thrace. The Greeks settled the island around 700 B.C. and intermarried with the local population. In the late 500s B.C., Samothrace founded its own colonies on the Greek mainland. A naval power of some renown, Samothrace sent a fleet of warships in 480 B.C. to the strait of Salamis, where the Greeks defeated the Persians in a great naval battle of the Persian Wars.

Samothrace was best known as the center of the mystery cult* of the Great Gods. These included the gods of the underworld* known as the Cabin, whose terrible anger was believed to be unrelenting. Pilgrims from throughout Greece journeyed to Samothrace to participate in the rituals* of the cult. They believed that by doing so they would receive protection, moral guidance, and eternal life. Philip II, the king of Macedonia, first saw his future wife—Olympias, the mother of Alexander the Great—at the Samothracian rituals. The shrine at Samothrace reached its greatest importance during the Hellenistic* period, when the rulers of the island erected buildings and presented gifts to the cult. The famous statue of Nike, called the Winged Victory of Samothrace and one of the most important sculptures of the Hellenistic period, once stood on a hillside above the sanctuary*. The mystery cult operated until the A.D. 300s, when Christianity became the religion of the Roman empire. {See also Colonies, Greek; Cults; Greece, History of; Religion, Greek.)

* cult group bound together by devotion to a particular person, belief, or god

* underworld kingdom of the dead; also called Hades

* ritual regularly followed routine, especially religious

* Hellenistic referring to the Greek-influenced culture of the Mediterranean world during the three centuries after Alexander the Great, who died in 323 b.c,

* sanctuary place for worship

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