Benjamin Thorpe’s 1851 book Northern Mythology has a chapter on Swedish folklore. Here, we find a one-page section headed “The Werwolf” that includes a single tale of lycanthropy. It deals with a man named Lasse who is turned into a werewolf by a supernatural being called a Vargamor:
In a hamlet within a forest there dwelt a cottager, named Lasse, and his wife. One day he went out in the forest to fell a tree, but had forgotten to cross himself and say his Paternoster, so that some Troll or Witch (Vargamor) got power over him and transformed him into a wolf. His wife mourned for him for several years; but one Christmas eve there came a beggar woman, who appeared very poor and ragged; the good housewife gave her a kind reception, as is customary among Christians at that joyous season. At her departure the beggar woman said that the wife might very probably see her husband again, as he was not dead, but was wandering in the forest as a wolf.
Towards evening the wife went to her pantry, to place in it a piece of meat for the morrow, when on turning to go out, she perceived a wolf standing, which raising itself with its paws on the pantry steps, regarded the woman with sorrowful and hungry looks. Seeing this she said: “If I knew that thou wert my Lasse, I would give thee a bone of meat.” At that instant the wolf-skin fell off, and her husband stood before her in the clothes he had on when he went out on that unlucky morning.
Note the usage of the word “Vargamor” to describe the supernatural villainess. Thorpe includes a footnote to explain this term:
Old women dwelling in the forests, who not unfrequently give themselves out as sorceresses, have got the name of Vargamor (Wolf-crones), and are believed to have the wolves of the forest under their protection and control. The heathen sorcery of transforming a person to the likeness of a wolf, is still believed by many to be transmitted to some wicked individuals, even to our days. Fins, Lapps and Russians are held in particular aversion on this account ; and when, during the last year of the war with Russia, Calmar was unusually overrun with wolves, it was generally said that the Russians had transformed the Swedish prisoners to wolves, and sent them home to infest the country.
Alas, Thorpe fails to provide citations, so it is unclear as to where he found either the tale of Lasse or the wider lore of Vargamor. The term itself is a combination of the Swedish words for “wolf” and “mother”, so Thorpe’s translation as “wolf-crone” is questionable.
Although the above is only a brief section of Thorpe’s three-volume book, it can quite possibly lay claim to introducing the concept of the Vargamor to the English-speaking world. Sabine Baring-Gould’s influential 1865 Book of Were-Wolves also contains the story of Lasse and the Vargamor — or “varga mor”, as Baring-Gould renders it — in a version that so closely modelled on Thorpe’s retelling as to be a paraphrasing:
In a hamlet in the midst of a forest, there dwelt a cottager named Lasse, and his wife. One day he went out in the forest to fell a tree, but had forgot to cross himself and say his paternoster, so that some troll or wolf-witch (varga mor) obtained power over him and transformed him into a wolf. His wife mourned him for many years, but, one Christmas-eve, there came a beggar-woman, very poor and ragged, to the door, and the good woman of the house took her in, fed her well, and entreated her kindly. At her departure the beggar-woman said that the wife would probably see her husband again, as he was not dead, but was wandering in the forest as a wolf. Towards night-fall the wife went to her pantry to place in it a piece of meat for the morrow, when, on turning to go out, she perceived a wolf standing before her, raising itself with its paws on the pantry steps, regarding her with sorrowful and hungry looks. Seeing this she exclaimed, “If I were sure that thou wert my own Lasse, I would give thee a bit of meat.” At that instant the wolf-skin fell off, and her husband stood before her in the clothes he wore on the unlucky morning when she had last beheld him.
Finns, Lapps, and Russians are held in particular aversion, because the Swedes believe that they have power to change people into wild beasts. During the last year of the war with Russia, when Calmar was overrun with an unusual number of wolves, it was generally said that the Russians had transformed their Swedish prisoners into wolves, and sent them home to invest the country.
Since then, a few other authors have incorporated Vargamor into their tales of lycanthropy, building heavily upon the rather slim information provided by the Lasse narrative. In 1912, Elliott O’Donnell’s book Werwolves — a highly dubious compendium of supposedly “true” werewolf accounts — brings up Vargamor as representative of lycanthropy in Sweden. O’Donnell portrays Vargamor not as women who turn people into wolves, but as women with control over wolves:
In certain of the forests of Sweden dwell old women called Vargamors, who are closely allied to werwolves, and exercise complete control over all the wolves in the neighbourhood, keeping the latter well supplied in foo.
O’Donnell follows this statement with a story about a Vargamor. As with much of the book, this was likely invented by O’Donnell himself, although it has structural similarities to certain fairy tales. The main character is a woman named Liso who callously sends her own children to their deaths to save herself, and as punishment is forced to do housework for a Vargamor:
“You’ve had a narrow escape,” the woman presently exclaims in peculiarly hoarse tones. “And the danger is not over yet! Listen!” To Liso’s terror an inferno of howls and whines sounds from the yard outside, and she sees, gleaming in at her through the window-panes, scores of wild, hairy faces with pale, lurid eyes. “They are there!” the woman remarks, a saturnine smile in her eyes and playing round her lips. “There—all ready to rend and tear you to pieces as they did your children—your three pretty, loving children. I’ve only to open the door, and in they will rush!”
“But you won’t,” Liso gasped feebly. “You won’t be so cruel. Besides, they could eat you, too.”
“Oh no, they couldn’t,” the woman laughed. “I’m a Vargamor. Every one of these wolves knows me and loves me as a mother. With you it is very different. Shall I——?”
Vargamor have survived into the twenty-first century. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Werewolves by Nathan Roberts Brown (2009) has a fanciful — and completely unsourced — section on Vargamor, portraying them as “women who practiced wolf rites (likely of a pre-Christian nature religion)”. In Brown’s feminist analysis, these pagan women were defamed by Christian persecutors as temptresses who “lure unsuspecting men into their dens with promises of sex, then feed them alive to their demonic wolves.” Meanwhile, Laurell K. Hamilton has included Vargamor among the denizens of the supernatural world in her popular Anita Blake urban fantasy novels.
Incidentally, I notice that the term Vargamor is used in at least one Swedish translation of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book to describe Mowgli’s wolf-mother, so clearly, the word has meanings outside the supernatural context.